IT : The Biggest Threat to our Energy Future

I’m normally not alarmist, and I’m usually not one to bash IT, especially since it’s the foundation of my living (no IT, no internet; no internet, no web-based software or blogs – and not much for me to do besides go back to academia and do philosawfical research), but, whereas environmental sustainability is concerned, the biggest threat to our future is not pollution from coal based factories, not the (over-exaggerated) dangers of nuclear energy, and not the continually impending shortage of oil – but computers! And I’m not talking about the bleak future painted by Arthur C. Clarke in his Space Odyssey, William Gibson in his groundbreaking Neuromancer, or any other bleak picture of the future where automated intelligence takes over the world and either tries to enslave or kill us, but the very real future where the crushing energy demands of data centers bring down the grid as their energy demands exceed what we’re able to produce.

The fact of the matter is that a single data center requires more energy to run than a small city of 40,000 people (The Greening of the CIO). And that’s just a small data center built two years ago. Today’s large ware-house size data centers (like those that would be required by companies like Google and Microsoft), which pack even more machines into the same amount of space, thanks to Moore’s law and continually decreasing hardware size, can require as much energy as a city of 100,000 to run! According to this recent article in, U.S. Data Centers cosume 45B kWh annually, and this is is expected to grow by 40% by 2010, according to another recent article in Environmental Leader. That’s over 70B kWh by 2010!

Now, it’s true that this is still a small fraction of the total energy consumption of the US, but it’s a fraction of use that is growing rapidly – and it doesn’t take into account all of the energy sucked up by computers which usually outnumber employees in an average office these days, or all of the energy sucked up by computers in the home. With over 200,000,000 computers in the US, sucking up 300-plus watts of power per hour, often around the clock (as many people don’t turn their computers off and many (backwards?) companies have policies that network computers must be left on around the clock, even when not in use, to enable network-based updates), even assuming they are only on half the time, that’s roughly another two hundred and sixty five (265) Billion kWh of energy, which is also increasing annually by a considerable percentage (as the number of computers continues to multiply like Fibonacci’s rabbits). This means that, in the US alone, IT is sucking up over 310 Billion kWh of energy annually, and that’s a very significant percentage – closing on 20% when you consider a a 1999 Green Earth Society study that found that computers consumed 13% of the entire electricity consumption of the US in 1999, and that this power consumption was expected to increase to at least 35% by 2020! (Source: Wikipedia.)

The reality is, as pointed out in a recent post by Tyler Shears on Gimmie the Scoop, every time you search Google you could power an 11-watt light bulb for an hour. But that’s nothing compared to the energy utilized every time you access YouTube (which takes up 10% of Internet bandwidth). It’s not just your computer, your ISP’s infrastructure, and the YouTube data centers that consume power to fulfill your request – but every computer and network device in between! The reality is that we’ve left the information age, and entered the energy age – an age where we need more energy every day just to function in our ultra-connected lives. (So think about that next time you think you’re doing good by accessing your Green social network every waking hour of the day!) I don’t know about you, but you should be startled by the fact that Google is using 1.8 Billion watt-hours of energy a day just for basic search queries. Believe it or not, that’s just a fraction of internet traffic!

So again, just like I pointed out in Ten Green Ideas That Work – I, it’s not your SUV that’s the problem, it’s your computer (and your internet addiction), and the fact that almost 19%, or one fifth, of power in the US is generated by the burning of petroleum products (oil) or derivatives (gas and diesel). (In comparison, natural gas accounts for over 29% and coal roughly 31%. Nuclear is about 10% and clean sources such as wind, solar, hydroelectric, geothermal, and biomass combined account for barely 11%.) So what can we do about it? I’ll address that in upcoming Green IT posts.