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Strip mine media

January 11, 2009

Internet zealots get a charge out of describing books, magazines, and newspapers as "dead tree media." The implication is that surrounding yourself with always-on electronic gadgets connected through a vast switching network to massive data centers represents a more environmentally friendly lifestyle than that pursued by, say, an old lady sitting at her kitchen table reading the morning paper.

Whatever makes you feel good about yourself.

Today's Sunday Times reports on a new study by a Harvard research fellow named Alex Wissner-Gross which concludes that "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 the research, "a typical search generates about 7g of CO2" while "boiling a kettle generates about 15g."

Let me start by saying that I find those numbers to be mind-boggling. In fact, I find them to be so mind-boggling that I'm dubious of them. In addition to being a researcher, Wissner-Gross is an entrepreneur who has a start-up that sells a service for tracking the electricity consumption of web sites. So he has a commercial as well as an academic interest here. So far as I can tell, he hasn't made public his calculations. If he's going to throw his conclusions around, he should show us how he arrived at them.

If we assume that Google processes a billion searches a day worldwide (a reasonable guesstimate), that means that, according to Wissner-Gross's numbers, those searches are producing 7 billion grams of carbon dioxide. Over the course of a year, that comes out to 2,555 billion grams. That equals, according to my rough and not altogether reliable arithmetic, 2.6 billion kilograms, or 2.6 million metric tons. I don't know enough about CO2 emissions to know whether that's a reasonable number. But somebody out there must know if it's a reasonable number.

But Wissner-Gross is surely right about one thing: that, as he tells the Times, “a Google search has a definite environmental impact.” Adds Evan Mills, of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which has done extensive research on the electricity use of information technology: “Data centres are among the most energy-intensive facilities imaginable."

Google has been very aggressive in developing energy-saving computer technologies (much more so than traditional PC and server manufacturers) - and its efforts should be applauded. Cutting energy consumption is a business imperative for the company (because its electric bill is one of its biggest costs), and I think it's fair to say that the Googlers see it as a moral imperative, too. But that doesn't change the fact that its search engine and other Internet services, like those of other online companies, consume an enormous quantity of electricity.

Google is in something of a moral quandary here. It's dedicated to energy efficiency, but it's also dedicated to getting people to spend as much time using the Net, and their computers, as possible. (That's the very core of its ad-based business model.) The company hasn't disclosed its electricity consumption. It says that such details of its operations are competitive secrets. I'm sure that's true. I'm also sure it's true that Google doesn't particularly want us to focus too closely on its energy use or, for that matter, on the environmental implications of our own Internet use.

If reducing energy consumption were the company's top priority, it would launch a PR campaign to educate people about those implications. It would encourage us to be conscious of the time we spend online - and to try to reduce that time. It might even offer, perhaps as part of the Google toolbar, a little calculator that shows a running estimate of the grams of CO2 we emit during each Internet session. Or maybe it could put a little banner across its home page reading: "Is this search really necessary?"

But this isn't really about Google, which is only supplying us with services that we want. It's about us. We may be obsessive about turning off the lights when we leave a room, but at the same time we may happily spend hours dicking around online, oblivious of the electricity lighting up our screen, heating our chip, and powering and cooling the data centers we're connected to. (It's true that in some cases Internet use may substitute for other activities, such as travel, that would consume more energy, but let's not kid ourselves: the vast majority of computer and Internet use represents additional energy consumption.) How many Twitterheads think about their electricity use before they tweet? Not many. How many bloggers think about it before they blog? Not this one.

So the next time you see some lunkhead smugly bloviating about "dead tree media," ask him how much electricity his computers, smartphones, and other networked gadgets consumed that day.

UPDATE: Google responds, claiming the Wissner-Gross estimate "is *many* times too high": "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 ... In terms of greenhouse gases, one Google search is equivalent to about 0.2 grams of CO2."

Still, the numbers add up. Google says "the average car driven for one kilometer ... produces as many greenhouse gases as a thousand Google searches." That means that the billion searches Google is estimated to do a day are equivalent to driving a car about a million kilometers. And that doesn't include the energy used to power the PCs of the people doing the searches, which Google says is greater than the power it uses.

Comments

Great post.

What if BitTorrent was repositioned as earth saving technology, and every time someone purchased a digital media file they had the opportunity to buy a locally “recycled” file instead of one that was sent from an energy intensive data center located 3,000 miles away? And, what if recycling everyone's “spent” media files could save enough energy to power 1,000,000 homes a year?
http://www.musicthinktank.com/blog/save-the-earth-use-bittorrent.html

Posted by: Bruce Warila [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 11, 2009 03:04 PM

Google's Carbon Calculator, which, in the UK at least, adds a tab to your iGoogle desktop, is worth a look at
www.google.co.uk/carbonfootprint/about.html.

Your piece prompted me to find it and try it.

At the end of the "footprint calculation" routine it comes up with some carbon reduction methods. Not using Google is not one of them, but cutting our PC's power use is.

In the course of the exercise I discovered that my footprint is about 8 tonnes of CO2 per year, on which basis, if I do 10^4 searches per year at 7gm of CO2 per search I will add to my footprint by 1%. Not to be sniffed at. But, like you, I'm instinctively sceptical about the kettle comparison.

Seb Schmoller

Posted by: sschmoller [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 11, 2009 03:54 PM

Hi Nick,

From the article in the Times it is (at least to me) completely unclear what numbers are used. It is mentioned there are approximately 200 mln searches per day, and this is the only number mentioned. But is is plain wrong, as anybody who can think can guess, and this is verified by a quick search. It is more like 2 billion for all engines combined (data from 2007, so probably now more).

If something basic like this is already nonsense, I don't have much confidence in the rest.

mat

Posted by: mat [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 11, 2009 04:16 PM

While I agree we should be more aware of the environmental impact of the net, I think that when "Internet zealots" say dead-tree media, it isn't so much about the environment. It is a good phrase because it points out that paper is only one form content may take, and it is a bad choice to think about paper as your business. NYT isn't a newspaper company and CNN isn't a spectrum company. They are media companies. That's why that phrase is popular, I think.

Posted by: Kevin [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 11, 2009 04:26 PM

Kevin, Sorry, but "paper media" would be an entirely appropriate term to use to describe media printed on, well, paper. The phrase "dead tree media" contains a sniffy criticism in addition to its descriptive role. Nick

Posted by: Nick Carr [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 11, 2009 05:03 PM

One piece of this conversation that seems to be missing, is considering where the electricity powering these servers, and our personal electronics, is coming from.

Google, specifically, is planning an infrastructure to run its servers on tidal power, and has invested significantly in many other carbon neutral or less carbon-emitting options for electricity.

Here in the US, most utility companies offer residents and businesses the option of paying a small surplus to buy green power (usually wind) instead of coal. (I pay an extra 30 cents a month for all of my apartment's power to be from wind)

As individuals, we can choose to support companies (even search engines) that are providing substantially better options, giving in to internet compulsions and not being consumed by eco-guilt.

google tide center article:
http://www.datacenterknowledge.com/archives/2008/09/06/google-planning-offshore-data-barges/

google renewable energy projects:
http://www.google.com/corporate/green/energy/

Posted by: Sarah Wells [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 11, 2009 06:06 PM

"The phrase "dead tree media" contains a sniffy criticism in addition to its descriptive role."

Kinda like "the strip-mined net"? ;)

Posted by: Kevin [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 11, 2009 09:24 PM

Is 2.6 million metric tonnes a reasonable number? It doesn't seem too unreasonable.

It is like saying that the benefit of everyone stopping searching on Google is the same as the benefit of taking 1.3 million cars off the road (or about 0.2% of the US car fleet).

These calculations are based on an average car being driven for 10,000 Km each year and producing about 2 tonnes of CO2e emissions and there being about 60 million cars in the United States.

Posted by: Fabian Le Gay Brereton [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 11, 2009 09:41 PM

Kevin: Bingo. Nick

Posted by: Nick Carr [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 11, 2009 11:49 PM

I also thought that kettle figure was suspect. Here's how Google explained it on their blog yesterday:
http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2009/01/powering-google-search.html

Powering a Google search
1/11/2009 10:48:00 PM
Not long ago, answering a query meant traveling to the reference desk of your local library. Today, search engines enable us to access immense quantities of useful information in an instant, without leaving home. Tools like email, online books and photos, and video chat all increase productivity while decreasing our reliance on car trips, pulp and paper.

But as computers become a bigger part of more people's lives, information technology consumes an increasing amount of energy, and Google takes this impact seriously. That's why we have designed and built the most energy efficient data centers in the world, which means the energy used per Google search is minimal. 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. The current EU standard for tailpipe emissions calls for 140 grams of CO2 per kilometer driven, but most cars don't reach that level yet. Thus, the average car driven for one kilometer (0.6 miles for those of in the U.S.) produces as many greenhouse gases as a thousand Google searches.

We've made great strides to reduce the energy used by our data centers, but we still want clean and affordable sources of electricity for the power that we do use. In 2008 our philanthropic arm, Google.org, invested $45 million in breakthrough clean energy technologies. And last summer, as part of our Renewable Energy Cheaper than Coal initiative (RE

We're also working with other members of the IT community to improve efficiency on a broader scale. In 2007 we co-founded the Climate Savers Computing Initiative, a group which champions more efficient computing. This non-profit consortium is committed to cutting the energy consumed by computers in half by 2010 — reducing global CO2 emissions by 54 million tons per year. That's a lot of kettles of tea.

Posted by Urs Hölzle, Senior Vice President, Operations

Posted by: Andy Hobsbawm [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 12, 2009 04:14 AM

And here is Google's answer: they claim the amount mentioned is about 35 times too much.

http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2009/01/powering-google-search.html

mat

Posted by: mat [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 12, 2009 06:54 AM

The Google response quoted above is very poor.

To arrive at their "0.0003 kWh" figure they consider only the amount of computing resources consumed directly in service of a particular request. Most requests take around "0.2s", they say, and they are giving an account of what is spent during that 0.2s, specifically on that given request.

The actual marginal energy cost of a request is that "0.0003kWh" multiplied by the degree of their energy inefficiency. For example, the servers that process the request being analyzed also are sometimes idle (yet burning energy). The support operations needed to keep the machines operating also contribute energy costs that are reasonably apportioned "per search".

It would be a simple enough matter for Google to display an audit of its corporate-wide energy consumption for search. We could quibble over the boundaries of what energy is counted and what should not be but we could likely agree on a ballpark. Dividing that by the number of queries processed per unit time would give, quite convincingly, the energy cost of a Google search at current efficiency levels.

Google not only declined to perform that measurement but distracted attention away from it.

-t

Posted by: Tom Lord [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 12, 2009 03:01 PM

Seems like it won't be long before we see search tools/websites labelled 'Green', also adding the appropriate cliche: Helping you save the planet. Much like toilet paper...


Posted by: MechaNikos [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 12, 2009 03:09 PM

The usual Carr Antics at work here.

The calculations of Google's carbon footprint have nothing to do with dead trees. The majority of queries performed by Google can not be done using paper media. You could get in your car and burn up a lot of carbon driving to a library to paw through books and magazine and 99 out of 100 times your question will not be answered. For most of the folks using Google billions of times a day, Google (and its kin) are the only way to answer a question. It is true that many of those questions are inessential or trivial, but nonetheless, paper media can't and doesn't answer them.

That is not true of web surfing, (which Google promotes but does not provide). The folks you want to ask about this is the New York Times. How much energy do they consume in producing one page on paper vs one page online? When you tally up all the carbon produced harvesting "dead trees", transporting it to mills, manufacturing paper, transporting it to printers, then trucking it to my home, does that produce more or less carbon per page than running some servers and running my PC? It's a much fairer question, and I don't know the answer. But my hunch is that the carbon footprint per page viewed will be less on the screen.

Of course, the same question can be asked of any publication with a print equivalent. Wired might want to answer it.

For that matter, a truly concerned and responsible web publication (Rough Type?) that was actually concerned about carbon footprints, instead of just poking other folks in the eye, could post what the carbon footprint per page view of its own content was. How much hot air (so to speak) is Rough Type producing per page view?

Not that hard to figure out. But it might be embarrassing if it was way more than Google.

Anyone want to bet whether Nick will measure himself?

Posted by: Kevin Kelly [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 12, 2009 04:11 PM

Just so it doesn't appear I am being unduly harsh, I'd like to re-quote Nick's posting here, and put him under his own standard:

"Cutting energy consumption is a business imperative for [Rough Type], and I think it's fair to say that the [Carr] sees it as a moral imperative, too. But that doesn't change the fact that its Internet service, like those of other online companies, consume an enormous quantity of electricity.

[Carr] is in something of a moral quandary here. [He's] dedicated to energy efficiency, but [he]'s also dedicated to getting people to spend as much time using Rough Type. (That's the very core of its ad-based business model.) I'm also sure it's true that [Carr] doesn't particularly want us to focus too closely on its energy use or, for that matter, on the environmental implications of our own Internet use.

If reducing energy consumption were [Carr]'s top priority, [he] would launch a PR campaign to educate people about those implications."

Posted by: Kevin Kelly [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 12, 2009 04:24 PM

Kevin,

Your second comment is total harebrained rubbish. If you had read my original post, you would have noticed that I directly implicate myself in the problem, admitting in fact that I (and you) are more to blame than Google is. To wit: "But this isn't really about Google, which is only supplying us with services that we want. It's about us. We may be obsessive about turning off the lights when we leave a room, but at the same time we may happily spend hours dicking around online, oblivious of the electricity lighting up our screen, heating our chip, and powering and cooling the data centers we're connected to ... How many bloggers think about it before they blog? Not this one."

Could I have been more clear? And doesn't that represent a "PR campaign" on a blogger's scale?

I mean, Jesus, Kevin, has the Net completely robbed you of your ability to read and comprehend written text? Is Google making you stupid?

As to your first comment: You're absolutely right that most web use does not substitute for "dead tree media" but rather constitutes new activities (and hence new demands on the power grid). I believe that was one of my points. (And I'm certainly not arguing that the Web represents a bad use of electricity. It represents a fine use of electricity. But, as you kinda sorta point out, there's a huge amount of waste involved in common patterns of Web use, which zealots like you will happily ignore, or paper over, even as you chide print publications for murdering trees - a renewable resource.)

I agree it would be interesting to have hard numbers on the carbon footprints of various media. But to attempt to do a one-to-one comparison between "dead tree media" and "strip mine media" would be a facile and largely meaningless exercise since the usage patterns are so radically different. (For instance: The vast majority of people who look at NYT articles on line do not and would not subscribe to the print edition. Therefore, there's no direct substitution going on. It's new demand. Which, again, is fine, but it means that attempts to compare the "per page" carbon footprint between print and online are pretty much frivolous, whatever they might reveal.)

As for measuring and posting Rough Type's carbon footprint, I would be more than happy to do that - if I had any idea of how to do it. But, as noted above, I already implicated myself in the original post. So what's your point?

Nick

Posted by: Nick Carr [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 12, 2009 05:00 PM

I'm in no position to evaluate the claims made by either side in this debate, but I will point you to Blackle, an interface that lets you do Google searches with only one significant difference: the background of the screen is black, instead of white. Last I checked, Blackle claims to have saved 1,028,107.172 watt hours.

Posted by: Lisa Williams [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 12, 2009 05:37 PM

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