Internet energy usage: How the life-changing network has a hidden cost

The internet has allowed each of us access to the total sum of all human knowledge. But has the cost been worth it?
Christopher McFadden
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The internet is very costly in energy and materials, is it worth it?

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  • Since its mass rollout, the internet has changed many aspects of our lives over the last few decades.
  • It has taken a lot of resources and energy to do this.
  • But has the cost been worth it?

The internet has become an important part of our daily lives, giving us easier and faster worldwide access to information, entertainment, and each other.

However, this convenience comes at a cost: the energy consumption of the internet and connectivity is rapidly increasing as more and more devices and data centers are brought online.

So, whether you're a tech enthusiast or simply someone who wants to understand the impact of your online habits, we are confident you'll find some of the following information enlightening.

Does the internet use a lot of energy?

In short, yes, it does.

With so many computers, data centers, and miles of wiring worldwide, it shouldn't be surprising that the internet uses a lot of energy. Not to mention smartphones, tablets, the internet of things, and other devices that use the internet every second of every day.

Internet energy usage: How the life-changing network has a hidden cost
The internet uses a lot of energy, it turns out.

But how much? Could we ever estimate or measure it?

If we were to do so, every component that connects to the system must be considered when evaluating the internet's energy consumption. A monumental task, to be sure, but we can break things down a little to make the process easier.

Since servers are the internet's core, that's probably a good place to start.

Data centers are groups of computers that make up a system's back end. A data center doesn't always need to be online; it could be an internal system within a business or organization. But the internet is kept running by massive data centers with tens of thousands of computers in critical places worldwide.

A data center can hold database computers, Web servers, mainframes, or all three. Only a few years ago, it was typical for companies to manage their own data centers. Some of them were enormous, the size of a warehouse, and included hundreds or even thousands of rack-mounted computers.

Others were compact, with just one rack of machines.

Many enterprises now rely on cloud services to fulfill their data center demands. In other words, they have outsourced the hardware behind their internet presence to someone else.

These cloud service data centers are vast, housing thousands of machines in colossal physical buildings. Each type of data center, whether in-house or outsourced to a specialist cloud service provider, requires energy to function.

Large ones can consume as much energy as a mid-sized town!

They also make a lot of heat and need to be cooled constantly, so they don't get too hot and stop working. Dedicated air conditioning systems are usually the go-to solution for this.

Data centers need air conditioning to keep the temperature and humidity within a specific range to ensure the proper functioning of the servers and other equipment. If the temperature and humidity get too high, it can cause equipment to overheat and malfunction, leading to possible data loss and system downtime.

Air conditioning is used to remove heat generated by the servers and other equipment and to circulate cool air throughout the data center to keep the temperature consistent. Additionally, air conditioning can also help to control humidity levels which helps prevent corrosion and other problems with the equipment.

This consumes a lot of energy on top of running the servers themselves.

Internet energy usage: How the life-changing network has a hidden cost
Data centers are one of the most energy-intensive parts of the internet.

Even though the growth rate for data centers in the US has been slowing recently, most of that drop is due to businesses getting rid of their data centers and moving to cloud services. However, these more centralized cloud data centers are larger than those they replace and are getting bigger over time.

It is difficult to estimate the exact number of data centers globally, as new ones are being built and old ones are being decommissioned all the time. However, it is estimated that thousands of data centers are in operation worldwide. At the end of 2021, there were also 728 hyperscale data centers alone - these are centers exceeding 5,000 servers and 10,000 square feet in area. And the number of hyperscale centers is predicted to grow considerably over the next decade.

The number of data centers varies significantly by region, with more developed countries having a higher density of data centers. Additionally, large data centers operated by large companies and service providers can be quite large. These large companies may operate multiple data centers in different regions worldwide.

Nonetheless, some have attempted to estimate this.

Barath Raghavan and Justin Ma from ICSI and the University of California, Berkeley, set out to do just this in 2011. They decided to consider the energy required to develop the internet.

All the energy needed to build computers, networks, cell phone towers, and other equipment is included. They referred to this as "emergy," or "embodied energy."

They concluded that, at least in 2011, the internet probably consumed somewhere between 170 gigawatts and 307 gigawatts a year. This figure incorporated estimates for many elements of the internet, including individual desktops, data centers, routers, Wi-Fi routers, etc.

That, the researchers concluded, might sound like a lot, but it was a fraction of global energy use.

"The internet’s energy use is small compared with the 16TW consumed globally. In contrast, transportation uses 61 percent of global oil production," they state in their paper.

When considering the internet's environmental impact, the researchers had some other interesting points to make.

Internet energy usage: How the life-changing network has a hidden cost
The internet might not consume that much energy on the grander scheme of things.

"Rather than focusing on saving energy for the internet in isolation, could we achieve bigger savings in worldwide energy use by having the internet offload some of the functionality of these other sectors?" the researchers explained.

"More importantly, we should look at why there is an urgent need to decrease energy use. Industrialized nations will likely face a pervasive oil bottleneck this decade that will force major changes. On a similar timescale and a more global basis, climate change demands the rapid phasing out of fossil fuels. If the internet is to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem, our approaches to energy efficiency must target these challenges head-on," they added.

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But that is only one estimate, and the internet has grown exponentially since 2011. Some more recent figures are a little more "damning."

How much electricity is consumed by the internet?

The previous estimate is on the "leaner" side of many estimates you may find on, ironically, the internet. Some others make more eye-opening estimates of the internet's total energy consumption, ranging from around 200 to 400 terawatt-hours per year.

If true, this is roughly equivalent to the energy consumption of Argentina or the Netherlands.

Internet energy usage: How the life-changing network has a hidden cost
Even just building the hardware is costly, energy-wise.

As we've seen, most of this energy is used by data centers responsible for storing, processing, and transmitting digital information and by the infrastructure that connects them (such as cables, routers, and switches). Additionally, energy is consumed by devices such as smartphones, smart devices, laptops, and tablets that access the internet and by the manufacturing and disposal of these devices.

But, direct energy consumption is not the only "cost" of the internet. All those computers, cables, and ancillary devices must also be made of physical stuff. This consumes raw materials and, of course, energy to make.

Attempting to estimate this energy consumption, on top of the day-to-day running of the internet, is likely impossible to ever estimate accurately. However, even a single computer can consume a surprising amount of power.

The amount of energy and raw materials required to build a computer can vary depending on the type and size of the computer, as well as the manufacturing process used. In general, building a computer requires a significant amount of energy and raw materials.

Manufacturing a computer involves several stages, each consuming energy and raw materials. Mining raw materials such as metals, plastics, and glass are energy intensive. The production of microprocessors and other electronic components also requires significant energy.

Assembling these components into a finished product also consumes energy. The total energy consumed during the production process of a computer ranges from, according to some estimates, between 3,010 to 4,340 MJ per computer.

In terms of raw materials, a personal computer typically contains around 1.5 kg of plastic, 0.75 kg of glass, and 0.4 kg of metals like aluminum, copper, and gold.

It's important to note that the computer industry is continually evolving, and the energy and resource consumption during the production of computers are also changing. For example, many companies are now using more energy-efficient manufacturing processes and are recycling materials to reduce the environmental impact of building computers.

It is difficult to estimate the exact number of personal computers connected to the internet worldwide, as new computers are connected, and others are disconnected all the time. Additionally, the number of personal computers can vary significantly by region, with more developed countries having a higher density of connected devices.

However, as of 2022, it is estimated that there are around five billion internet users globally. If we assume most, if not all, of these are real human beings and most access the internet through personal computers and/or smartphones, we can get an idea of the amount likely operational worldwide.

This number is projected to increase as more and more people gain access to the internet and technology becomes more affordable and widely available.

At around several thousand megajoules of energy each to build, that is quite a significant amount to get computers to people to "take part" in the internet.

Internet energy usage: How the life-changing network has a hidden cost
Computers cost energy and materials before they are even connected to the internet for the first time.

It's also worth noting that, besides personal computers, many other connected devices such as smartphones, tablets, and other IoT devices are connected to the internet, which increases the total number of connected devices.

Great, but what about Wi-Fi?

How much energy does Wi-Fi use?

For most of us, connecting to the internet is usually achieved using a Wi-Fi connection. So, you might be wondering. How much energy is consumed by these networks?

The energy consumption of a Wi-Fi network can vary depending on several factors, such as the number of devices connected to the network, the type of equipment used, and the specific energy efficiency of the equipment. However, on average, a Wi-Fi router uses around 5-20 watts of power.

It's important to note that this estimate is based on the energy consumption of the router and does not include the energy consumption of the devices connected to the network. The energy consumption of the devices will depend on factors such as the device's power usage and how long it is connected to the network.

Internet energy usage: How the life-changing network has a hidden cost
How much energy does Wi-Fi consume?

If we wanted to estimate the total number of Wi-Fi networks worldwide, this is also difficult, as new networks are being set up and others are being decommissioned all the time. Additionally, the number of Wi-Fi networks can vary significantly by region, with more developed countries having a higher density of Wi-Fi networks.

However, as of 2022, it is estimated that there are around 27 billion Wi-Fi-connected devices globally. This number is projected to increase as more and more devices become Wi-Fi enabled, and internet access becomes more widely available.

It's also worth noting that this number only represents the Wi-Fi networks that are currently active and in use and does not include networks that are inactive or not in use. Additionally, this number includes both private and public Wi-Fi networks.

In any case, it is also worth mentioning that the energy consumption of Wi-Fi networks can be mitigated by using energy-efficient equipment, such as routers with Energy Efficient Ethernet (EEE) capability, which can automatically power down when not in use. Additionally, you can reduce energy consumption by disconnecting devices that are not in use, putting your router in energy-saving mode, and keeping your router and devices updated with the latest software to improve energy efficiency.

So, how about the ongoing energy running costs of internet-connected computers? What about when you download data?

How much energy does 1GB of data use?

Regarding the energy cost of the internet, we've looked at data centers and individual computer construction costs. But what about you accessing the internet and looking at or downloading stuff?

Let's discuss a set of 1 gigabyte of data as a starting point.

The energy cost of downloading 1GB of data can vary depending on several factors, such as the location of the data center, the type of network infrastructure used, and the specific energy efficiency of the equipment used. However, it takes around 0.2 to 0.5 kWh of energy to download 1GB of data.

It's important to note that this estimate is based on the energy consumption of the data center and network infrastructure and does not include the energy consumption of the device that is downloading the data. The device's energy consumption will depend on factors such as the device's power usage and how long it takes to download the data.

Fascinating, but let's drill down a little more. What about, for example, a single Google internet search?

This is also tricky to estimate as the energy cost of a single Google search can vary depending on the same factors above. But, according to one often-quoted source, an average search query uses about 0.0003 kWh of energy or 0.2g of carbon dioxide to run.

That is equivalent to turning on a 60W light bulb for 17 seconds.

Google processes billions of searches per day. It is difficult to estimate an exact number as it can vary depending on the day, time, and location. However, it is estimated that Google handles around 8.3 billion daily searches on average. This number has consistently grown as internet usage, and access has increased globally.

It's also worth noting that this number only represents the searches made on Google, not other search engines. Additionally, this number only represents web searches and does not include searches made on Google's other products, such as YouTube, Maps, and others.

Regarding the energy impact of the internet in general, it's also worth mentioning that the energy consumption of data centers and network infrastructure can be mitigated by using energy-efficient equipment and renewable energy sources, which can help reduce the environmental impact of performing a search. Google, for example, has been continuously optimizing its energy efficiency and use of renewable energy.

But search engine searches and downloading stuff are only some elements of people's internet use.

What is the environmental and energy cost of a single email?

As we've seen, the data and energy we consume on our phones, computers, and other electronic devices, from sending messages to making phone calls, all adds up, especially when we consider the number of people across the world doing the same thing at all hours of the day. For example, most of us send many emails each day; At the same time, while each one is likely minuscule in its energy consumption, multiple emails daily, every day of the year, will likely consume a non-insignificant amount of energy.

But how much is it?

Internet energy usage: How the life-changing network has a hidden cost
Emails don't consume much energy individually, but the shear volume of them sent everyday does.

Well, there is a sizable quantity of research that makes an effort to estimate how much energy is consumed by electronic devices. For example, the Guardian reports that sending a single email attachment reportedly uses 50g of carbon dioxide.

If we consider the number of emails we send each day and increase this by the number of coworkers, this can add up to an alarming daily carbon dioxide and energy consumption.

According to other sources, a 10KB email can consume up to 0.074 microwatts of electricity, while a 500KB email can consume up to 3.7 microwatts. Although this might not seem like a lot per email, the actual energy consumption per email is probably much higher because it does not include the electricity needed by routers, networks, and data centers for storage.

Even with all the information and research at our disposal, it is still quite challenging to determine the actual energy consumption of each email, as it varies on the device being used. Another problem is that it might be challenging to pinpoint the energy source driving each email sent due to the millions of emails sent daily around the globe.

Data centers that house emails and other digital information from around the world, as we've seen, are thought to consume up to hundreds, perhaps thousands of terawatts of electricity annually. This number undoubtedly rises daily as the world's population expands, more devices are utilized, and information is processed by devices more quickly, requiring more power to operate.

Large companies like Google, which must store emails for millions of users worldwide, assert that they are carbon-efficient since 100 percent of their energy needs are met by renewable energy sources. However, email can use a significant amount of electricity as a default communication method when one considers the staggering number of emails generated every second and the electricity it needs to store all of these in your inbox and other folders.

Internet energy usage: How the life-changing network has a hidden cost
Would you consider sending less emails every day?

If we put this into context, every email contributes to an ever-increasing need for electricity, which rises daily as new emails are sent. More data centers are required to house the digital information being produced at an ever-increasing rate.

It may be time to reevaluate our relationship with email and consider the electricity consumption you're about to use every time you type a subject line, even though many of us take the ability to send emails for granted. When we consider the overall environmental impact of our inboxes, it may be time to send fewer emails.

Or, at least, you can use it as an excuse to send fewer. We'll let you decide if that will "fly" with your employer or clients.

If the internet uses so much energy, should we turn it off?

So. with the internet consuming a large amount of energy (and materials), some have questioned whether or not we should rethink its existence. Would it be beneficial, for example, to turn the thing off?

One opinion is that that might be a bad idea. James Glanz wrote an article for the New York Times in 2012 that examined data centers' energy loss and inefficiency. Glanz noted that data centers must store the same information on several machines to provide redundancy and guarantee reliability. These devices must always be operational and available.

As we've already discussed, they are also required to draw additional power in addition to the servers needing constant power.

According to Glanz's sources, data centers utilize significant gigawatts of electricity each year. Additionally, he claimed that up to 90 percent of the energy used in data centers is lost, much of it in the form of heat. Is this, Glanz asks, in the end, worth the cost?

Internet energy usage: How the life-changing network has a hidden cost
Do the costs of the internet outweigh its benefits?

Returning to the study by Raghavan and Ma, they believe it is.

Their analysis notes that the transportation sector, responsible for well over 60 percent of all oil consumption, uses more energy than the internet. But no one seriously suggests that all transportation should be stopped.

According to the two academics, moving more tasks to the internet makes sense because it consumes less power and has a lesser environmental impact than transportation. For example, as many saw during the recent coronavirus pandemic, teleconferencing might save more energy than traveling for meetings.

Of course, a lot has changed since 2012 - especially the number of devices connected to the internet. One study by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Albert Fert estimates that in 2030, 20 percent of the world’s electricity consumption will come from the digital transmission of data.

When you examine how much energy the internet consumes, the overall picture shows that it's a complicated problem. If the internet didn't exist, we would have to rely on alternative means of communication and information access. These processes could use more energy and generate more pollution than the internet. If so, it makes sense from an energy standpoint to lessen our reliance on these activities and increase our internet use.

But, even if this is not enough reason, turning it off would be, put it lightly, pretty disastrous for many aspects of our modern world.

If the internet were to shut down suddenly, it would significantly impact many aspects of daily life, including communication, commerce, and access to information. Many businesses, organizations, and individuals rely heavily on the internet for their operations, and the loss of internet access would cause disruptions and difficulties for them.

It would also affect emergency services, financial systems, and other critical infrastructures that rely on the internet. Additionally, many people use the internet as a primary entertainment and social connection, and its loss would likely lead to feelings of isolation and disconnection.

Internet energy usage: How the life-changing network has a hidden cost
Should we turn the internet off?

So, is the internet worth the cost of energy and materials?

So, with all the internet costs in energy and raw materials, you might wonder if all that effort is worth it. To put it lightly, the internet has revolutionized many aspects of our lives (for bad and bad). These include, but are not limited to:-

  • Access to information: The internet has made it easier for people to access information on various topics. This has led to increased knowledge and education for individuals and a greater understanding and awareness of global issues. In this sense, it has been as, if not more, liberating than the Gutenberg printing press so many centuries ago.
  • Connectivity and communication: The internet has made it easy for people to connect and communicate with others, regardless of physical distance. This has led to increased collaboration, community building, and stronger personal relationships.

  • Economic growth: The internet has opened up new opportunities for commerce and business, leading to economic growth and job creation. Online marketplaces, e-commerce, and digital platforms have made it easier for businesses to reach new customers and for consumers to find products and services.
  • Improved healthcare: The internet has made accessing medical information and resources easier, leading to improved health outcomes. Telemedicine and online consultations have also made healthcare more accessible for people in remote or underserved areas.
  • Increased access to entertainment: The internet has made it easy for people to access various entertainment options, including music, movies, TV shows, and video games. This has led to greater cultural exchange and diversity.
  • Facilitation of social and political change: The internet has facilitated social and political change by providing a platform for individuals and groups to share information, organize events and movements, and effect change.

Overall, the internet has significantly impacted humanity, improving people's lives in many ways. Still, it's essential to remember that the internet has also had many negative impacts on the society that need to be addressed.

So, what can be done to make the internet less energy-hungry if it can't be turned off?

How could the internet be made more environmentally friendly?

Irrespective of which estimates you put your stock in, it is clear that the day-to-day running of, and provision of hardware to run it, consume a large amount of energy and resources. Whether or not the benefits of it outweighs its costs is out of the scope of this piece, but there are probably ways we can do things more efficiently.

There are various ideas of how to do this, but most tend to incorporate some, or all, of the following.

  • Energy-efficient data centers: Data centers are responsible for a large portion of the internet's energy consumption. Data centers can reduce energy consumption by using energy-efficient equipment and implementing best practices for cooling, lighting, and server management. For example, many hypercenters are being built in areas with cold climates to reduce the energy needed for cooling. They also often incorporate renewable energy, such as solar power.
  • Renewable energy: Increasing renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power, can help reduce the internet's carbon footprint and make it more sustainable.
  • Energy-efficient devices: Designing and manufacturing energy-efficient devices, such as routers, modems, and servers, can also help to reduce the internet's energy consumption.
  • Network optimization: Optimizing network infrastructure and protocols can help reduce internet-enabled devices' energy consumption. For example, using more energy-efficient communication protocols and reducing the number of "hops" required to transfer data can help to reduce energy consumption.

  • Virtualization and cloud computing: By virtualizing servers and moving to cloud computing, companies can reduce the number of servers they need to operate, thus reducing energy consumption.
  • Edge computing: By processing data at the network's edge rather than sending it to a central location for processing, energy consumption can be reduced.
  • Energy-efficient Internet of Things (IoT) devices: IoT devices are becoming increasingly prevalent, and designing them to be energy-efficient is crucial to reduce the internet's energy consumption.
  • Recycling and disposal: Properly recycling and disposing of old devices can help reduce the internet's environmental impact by reducing the need to extract new raw materials.

It's important to note that the internet industry is constantly evolving, and new technologies and innovations are continuously being developed to reduce the environmental impact of the internet. Additionally, many companies and organizations have implemented some of the abovementioned strategies to make their operations more energy efficient.

Ultimately, however, we may need to look to the stars to make the internet as energy efficient as possible...

Could technology like Starlink reduce the environmental impact of the internet?

Starlink, the satellite internet service provided by SpaceX, can potentially reduce the environmental impact of the internet by providing internet access in remote and underserved areas where traditional terrestrial internet infrastructure is not present or feasible. Starlink aims to provide high-speed internet access to users via a network of thousands of low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites, which can be deployed more quickly and at a lower cost than traditional satellite internet systems.

By reducing the need for terrestrial internet infrastructure, such as fiber optic cables and cell towers, Starlink could help to reduce the environmental impact of internet access in remote areas. Additionally, Starlink aims to use solar power to generate energy for its satellites, which could reduce the service's environmental impact compared to traditional satellite internet systems that rely on non-renewable energy sources.

However, it's important to note that Starlink is still a relatively new technology, and the service's environmental impact will ultimately depend on the specifics of the design and implementation of the system. The not-inconsiderable environmental impact of launching and disposing of thousands of satellites also needs to be considered.

In general, as with any new technology, the environmental impact will depend on how it is implemented and operated and the specific energy efficiency of the equipment used. And it's also worth noting that the internet industry is constantly evolving, and new technologies and innovations are continuously being developed to reduce the environmental impact of the internet.

And that is your lot for today.

The internet has changed many aspects of our lives, from liberating access to information, and improving communication, to providing previously unheard-of ways to improve our lives. But, this has come at an extreme cost in resources, energy, and, ultimately, our mental health.

While it is inevitable that we will make the internet more efficient in energy consumption and resources, other, less tangible costs will be harder to fix if they ever could.

We'll let you be the judge of that.