Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Is Google baking the planet?

Noumenon asked me to tackle this, from a British report:
Performing two Google searches from a desktop computer can generate about the same amount of carbon dioxide as boiling a kettle for a cup of tea, according to new research.

While millions of people tap into Google without considering the environment, a typical search generates about 7g of CO2 Boiling a kettle generates about 15g. “Google operates huge data centres around the world that consume a great deal of power,” said Alex Wissner-Gross, a Harvard University physicist whose research on the environmental impact of computing is due out soon. “A Google search has a definite environmental impact.”
It seems fishy, and it almost certainly is. First, Google's response:
In fact, in the time it takes to do a Google search, your own personal computer will use more energy than Google uses to answer your query.

Recently, though, others have used much higher estimates, claiming that a typical search uses "half the energy as boiling a kettle of water" and produces 7 grams of CO2. We thought it would be helpful to explain why this number is *many* times too high. Google is fast — a typical search returns results in less than 0.2 seconds. Queries vary in degree of difficulty, but for the average query, the servers it touches each work on it for just a few thousandths of a second. Together with other work performed before your search even starts (such as building the search index) this amounts to 0.0003 kWh of energy per search, or 1 kJ. For comparison, the average adult needs about 8000 kJ a day of energy from food, so a Google search uses just about the same amount of energy that your body burns in ten seconds.

In terms of greenhouse gases, one Google search is equivalent to about 0.2 grams of CO2.
Now, Google is notoriously opaque when it comes to its own operations, so it's not easy (or possible, really) to verify their claims. But Joe Romm is smarter than me, and he calls BS too:
What is the net energy consumed by the internet? I argue the internet is a net energy saver — and a big one — since it increases efficiency (especially in things like the supply chain) and dematerialization (it uses less energy to research online than in person). The fact that U.S. energy intensity (energy consumed per dollar of GDP) began dropping sharply in the mid-1990s is but one piece of evidence that internet- and IT-driven growth is less energy intensive.

I, for instance, am able to work at home and telecommute thanks to the Internet and a broadband connection. That saves the energy consumed in commuting and a considerable amount of net building energy: Most people’s homes are an underutilized asset, which consume a great deal of energy whether or not they are there.
There's sort of a weird disconnect where a society of SUVs, beef, and frequent air travel insists on finding equivalence with a mildly energy-intensive computer company and Japanese toilets.

Oh, and the researcher says the Times of London totally blew the point of the study, which was merely to say that the online world has definite offline impact. Seems like the reporter wanted to make his pieces of silver and the scientist didn't attend the media training seminar last September...

To go with Joe Romm's point though, I think Google has to be considered a winner even if you don't count Google's investments in solar and renewable efficiency. Google makes the Internet easier. Easier Internet = more Internet use. Hell, if you want to get really in the weeds, let's calculate how much more CO2 would have been generated if actual CDs had to be shipped to equal the volume of downloaded music in the world?

1 comment:

Noumenon said...

One of the comments on Romm's post links to an assertion that the 7 g/search figure came out of a blog post, not the author's study. Thanks for looking into it.