Thursday, February 07, 2008

Internet Searching and Energy Use

According to an article in today's Basler Zeitung (unfortunately not available on-line), one Google search uses as much energy as a 10-watt bulb uses in a half an hour. Multiply that by more than one billion searches per day. It's running the server computers that sucks up so much energy.

I was going to do some Google searches to check on that, but I decided not to.

I wonder how much energy each blog post uses.


mrjumbo said...

It's an interesting problem.

I'm sure the Basler Zeitung has some source for their calculation, but that's a tricky thing to figure.

What we can work out, though, is the total power consumed by the servers that act as the workhorses of the Internet.

(It's a little tricker, again, to work out how much power is sucked down by all the clients of the Internet. One can conjecture.)

I did a lot of poking around on this a few months ago, curious. The answer, for the time being, is that the exchange of information takes up a dribble of energy compared to, say, manufacturing or transportation.

We all know the Internet burns exponentially more power than it did 10 years ago. Back then I wouldn't consider listening to a radio station 500 miles away on my computer. Now I do it without a second thought. How many servers between here and there are spending microwatts shuffling packets so I can hear Paul Simon?

A further question is whether power use on the Internet replaces greater consumption elsewhere, or whether it represents an additional use of power.

If I use the Internet to communicate with someone instead of communicating by telephone or a letter, have I saved power or used more power than I would have otherwise?

If I use the Internet to buy a book or a CD or groceries instead of driving to a brick-and-mortar store to buy them, have I saved power or used more power? (I might burn less fuel in shopping, but is the truck that delivers my packages more efficient?)

More abstract, the Internet has made a kind of collaboration and information exchange possible that 20 years ago could only have been imagined. If two engineers on separate continents--or two teams of engineers, or three or four--can use the Internet to come up with a Hybrid Synergy Drive, or a more efficient mag-lev train, or a better composite formulation for windmill blades, have we scored a net loss or a net gain in power usage?

Tricky business.

Poet with a Day Job said...

I have an inside source that has told me Google is currently looking for ways to shrink their footprint...

Andrew Shields said...

Mr. J, as you suggest, it is damn hard to figure out what the "real," total footprint is for a particular activity. The web may lead many people who would once have driven to campus to do research to no longer do so, or do so much less often.

RC said...

Andrew,I hear Google runs their servers on solar power:)

mrjumbo said...

Google certainly is attentive to power usage. They use a lot.

Most people with long-range plans don't count on the price of oil going down in the future.

Alternate sources of electricity that don't seem economical at today's prices for oil and natural gas might well look more sensible in five years, or ten or twenty.

(An enormous amount of electricity in the U.S. is still generated from coal, which is more plentiful and less expensive than oil and natural gas, although it has pollution issues to overcome.)
Google for example recently set up a new server farm right next to the Columbia River, on a site that had been vacated by an aluminum smelting plant. Since aluminum smelting sucks down a lot of electricity, the infrastructure was already in place to deliver a considerable amount of hydro power (thank FDR and Woody Guthrie for that whole Bonneville power thing).

And so we see the curious effects of world economic dynamics: The developed world doesn't like pollution, so one pollution source after another is being exported to the developing world, where rules are looser and documentation is harder to come by. (The folks who smelt aluminum are looking at huge gas-powered smelters in the Arabian Peninsula and China for future production, as they shutter old plants in the U.S. and Europe.)

So folks along the Columbia River breathe nicer air than the smelter used to put out, which is good for them. They don't have manufacturing jobs anymore. They can find work at places like Starbucks ("Regular or non-fat?" is today's "Would you like fries with that?"), where on breaks they can watch customers tapping away at their imported laptops, wearing imported clothing, using information-management tools that are paid for by companies advertising more goods made overseas.

The advertising dollars (today) go mostly to companies from the developed world, but one wonders how much of that appearance of wealth is temporary smoke and mirrors. The folks who sell goods will tell you that when you buy from a local retailer, something like 99% of the purchase price stays in the domestic economy, and only 1% goes overseas, but again that sounds like careful manipulation of cash flow estimates.

Meanwhile, it's not 100% clear that we are polluting the world less with our consumption--although we generally aren't seeing the pollution in our own back yards anymore.

Right now certain import-export rules are in place to limit economic interaction with nations that violate various principles of human rights, or that are perceived to support terrorism. It would be interesting to see import regulations constructed around the idea that exporters from a country with more lax environmental standards would have to pay a higher tariff on their goods than exporters from a country with state-of-the-art environmental protections.

Anyhow, the current situation does leave a nice space for companies like Google to step in and take advantage of the abandoned industrial infrastructure. And, just like anyone else, they can see that over time, reducing their footprint by moving to more efficient servers and alternate forms of energy production will probably save beaucoup bucks.