Saturday, January 17, 2009

Green Google

This week, several news sources reported on a study of the carbon emissions produced by Googling. The oft-cited analogy (strongly denied by Google) was that the carbon emissions of two Google searches is the equivalent of the emissions produced by boiling a kettle. To put this number in context, Google performs about 200 million searches a day--so, imagine the energy required to boil 100 million kettles every day. Google retorted that your computer will emit more carbon in the time it takes Google to perform your search than Google emits doing the search.

Either way (and especially if both of these things are true), there’s something eye-opening to the facts of the environmental impact of our personal computing and Internet use. The Internet, in particular, tends to seem invisible and thus, benign, in terms of resource consumption. In sociology, we call this a black box phenomena--input goes in, output comes out, and we don’t pay much attention to what goes on in between.

So, what DOES go on in between? And, more importantly, what are companies like Google doing to improve their environmental track record?

The IT industry produces approximately 2% of the world’s carbon emissions; a figure that puts it on par with the airline industry. But, while turbo jets tend to capture our collective imagination with their very obvious display of power and energy-use, our computers and Internet, while pervasive, tend to buzz along below our green radar.

In the 2008 Economist World Report, Tom Standage reports that 49% of these emissions come from personal computers and printers, 37% from telecoms networks and devices and 14% of data centers. The magic that enables us to type the name of an old friend into a search engine and be instantaneously rewarded with a list of Internet sites featuring a matching name, is magic which requires vast amounts of power and energy; it requires mind-boggling numbers of servers and computers; computers that are stored in warehouses that need to be cooled, powered and maintained. It also requires our own personal computers and the power necessary to maintain and ultimately dispose of them. All of this is after the mining for resources that will go into manufacturing electronic devices and the manufacturing itself and all of the attendant energies and waste that THAT generates. It turns out the magic isn’t magic at all but a lot of hard work and non-renewable resources.

So, what’s being done to mitigate the impact of all of this on our planet? Well, as it happens, it is particularly ironic that Google was singled out by this week’s news reports for the carbon emissions produced by their searches because they are sustainability leaders in the IT industry. Google has launched a series of green initiatives that target everything from their commitment to making it easy for their employees to commute to work, to the food they serve at their campuses, to their commitment to using recycled water onsite. Google is leading the way in the creation of zero-carbon data centers: typically, data centers are powered by dirty energy, like coal. But, because data centers for the IT industry can be located literally anywhere in the world, they can be located in places where they can take advantage of clean energy sources such as wind power or geothermal. See Amelia Williamson’s article for how Google and others are venturing into zero carbon data centers. Google is also a board member of a new coalition called Climate Savers Computing Initiative, which is organizing the industry to reduce computer power consumption by 50%.

Ultimately, while the recent news on the energy intensiveness of Google searches may have unfairly targeted the wrong company, we see the media flurry as a positive thing for drawing attention to the too-often-invisible impact of the ubiquitous IT industry on our collective carbon footprint. We know that we will be following the greening of IT much more closely from here on out.

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  1. Whew, when I think of the time I spend on the computer, moving back and forth--window shopping, blogging, banking--I feel like I am not wasting any energy at all. Yet when I drive, I always feel guilty.

    Good post. Gets me thinking...

  2. Wow, I too was not aware of all the energy it takes while I peruse online. Thanks for posting. Way to go for Google, I have heard how they were particippating in the 100 mile food club and about thier envoronmental friendly office practices. It will be great to see more of this catch on at other businesses!