Social Media Refrigerators?

One of the stranger things in the world of energy is that the Department of Energy does not yet offer an official estimate of how much electricity use is now accounted for by our wireless world. Right now the official statistics only break down energy and electricity use by four broad sectors: residential, commercial, industrial, and transportation. But wireless technology—and all the energy-hungry internet server farms, cell towers, and end-use devices like smart phones, tablets, laptops, data-processing computers, etc.—that are plugged into the grid may amount to as much as 10 percent of total electricity use today by some private estimates. In other words, all of the energy savings we have achieved though strenuous mandates to increase the energy efficiency of appliances has been more than overtaken by our new internet-based gadgets.

One early controversial estimate is that every single Google search had a carbon footprint that could be measured in ounces, and that a smart phone has the equivalent energy footprint of a small refrigerator. Which would mean, by conventional green analysis, that social media activity is killing the planet!  Yet another reason “social media” could be considered profoundly anti-social.

Curiously, environmental groups with the notable exception of Greenpeace seem little interested in finding out how much energy use our wireless world uses, probably because they don’t want to get crossways with many of their powerful patrons in Silicon Valley. Thus this story in the Washington Post a few days ago is worth noting:

How bad is email for the environment?

By Hayley Tsukayama

A story started making the rounds last week about French energy regulators asking companies to cut back on email in order to save energy. It sort of sounds like a satirical piece. . . but the suggestion really does come from the French regulator RTE.

Which got us thinking: How do our tech habits affect how much power we use and the environment? Finding an answer is harder than you may think. After all, the energy you use at your desk writing a typical email isn’t all the energy that an email uses. As the French warning indicates, there’s a whole infrastructure behind every message, which includes not only the electricity you use but also the energy it takes to store and transmit that information through data centers. . .

Working off these and other sources, we were able to come up with some rough estimates about how your tech habits affect the environment. Your ultimate impact will, of course, depend on the way you power your own home — solar, wind, etc.

Email: The average spam email has a footprint equivalent to 0.3 grams of carbon dioxide emissions (CO2e), according to carbon footprint expert Mike Berners-Lee’s 2010 book “How Bad are Bananas: The Carbon Footprint of Everything.” A normal email, according to that book, has a footprint of 4 g of CO2e, which accounts for the power data centers and computers spend sending, filtering and reading messages. An email with a “long and tiresome attachment” can have a carbon footprint of 50g CO2e.

Berners-Lee estimates that a typical year of incoming mail adds 300 pounds of emissions to a person’s carbon footprint, or the equivalent of “driving 200 miles in an average car.”

And just wait till you get to streaming video and gaming! I have on one or two occasions suggested to audiences of hip millennials who want to save the planet that they should start by giving up their smart phones, offering to take custody of them and make sure they’re properly recycled. I’ve never gotten any takers.

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