Virtual Consumer May-Jun 2008

The Internet pound for pound

Column for Ethical Consumer Magazine May/June 2008

It is a commonplace to say that the net is full of junk. And yet millions of people find it an invaluable and accurate reference source. One drawback however is the persistence of myths. Not only is the net a splendid place to promote a conspiracy theory but it is also a place where old myths never die. They sit around on servers ready for sloppy researchers to stumble across and resurrect.

One of these recently surfaced in the Observer (2 March 2008). Somewhat ironically it concerns the Internet and the amount of power it consumes.  The “Green Gauge” that accompanies Lucy Siegle’s ethics page noted that “to store 2MB of data requires around a pound of coal, according to estimates”. It is far from clear what this means. Is this the energy required to run the disks? If so, for how long? In fact it is almost certainly a mis-quote of a particularly hoary myth: that it takes a pound of coal to transmit 2Mbytes of data over the Internet.

This dates back to an article which appeared in Forbes in 1999 by Peter Huber and Mark P Mills. The article went on to claim that a hand-held Internet-connected device such as a Palm Pilot was responsible for the power consumption of a refrigerator, and that within 20 years (ie by 2019), the Internet would account for 50% of all US electricity consumption. Mills was working with the “Greening the Earth Society” - on the surface some sort of ecological pressure group. Except that it turns out that this particular body was set up by the American coal industry. Their purpose in talking up the power consumption of the internet was to argue for more power stations to be built – particularly coal-fired power stations.

In a more objective report published in 2007, Jonathan G. Koomey estimated that the Internet infrastructure accounted for 0.8% of world electricity consumption. That is still an alarmingly high figure, particularly when you consider the rate at which the net is expanding (although rising energy prices have led to a rush to make new, greener data centres). It is an important issue, not served by recycling old myths.