The trouble with bitcoin and big data is the huge energy bill
26th November 2017 | Commercial Energy
Once upon a time, a very long time ago – 2009 in fact – there was a brief but interesting controversy about the carbon footprint of a Google search. It was kicked off by a newspaper story reporting a “calculation” of mysterious origin that suggested a single Google search generated 7 grams of CO2, which is about half of the carbon footprint of boiling a kettle.
Irked by this, Google responded with a blogsport saying that this estimate was much too high. “In terms of greenhouse gases,” the company said, “one Google search is equivalent to about 0.2 grams of CO2. The current EU standard for tailpipe (exhaust) emissions calls for 140 grams of CO2 per kilometre driven, but most cars don’t reach that level yet. Thus, the average car driven for one kilometre (0.6 miles for those in the US) produces as many greenhouse gases as a thousand Google searches.”
Every service that Google provides is provided via its huge data centres, which consume vast amounts of electricity to power and cool the servers, and are therefore responsible for the emission of significant amounts of CO2. Since the advent of the modern smartphone in about 2007 our reliance on distant data centres has become total, because everything we do on our phones involves an interaction with the “cloud” and therefore has a carbon footprint.
The size of this footprint has been growing. At the moment, about 7% of the world’s electricity consumption is taken by our digital ecosystem but this is forecast to rise to 12% by 2020 and is expected to grow annually at about 7% through to 2030.
The big internet companies are acutely aware of this. Electricity costs money and they are fanatical about reducing costs. And they are desperate to avoid the PR downsides of being perceived as energy hogs. So they have responded to a challenge issued by environmental group Greenpeace some years ago – to commit to having all of their activities powered by renewable sources. Facebook, Apple and Google made this “100% renewable” commitment four years ago and have now been joined by nearly 20 other internet companies.
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