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A Greener Cloud: Cutting Down the Digital Economy's Energy Suck

Unlike the hum of the refrigerator or the buzz of a light bulb, you can't hear the energy consumption while you're browsing Facebook from your smartphone.

Unlike the hum of the refrigerator or the buzz of a light bulb, you can't hear the energy consumption while you're browsing Facebook from your smartphone. So it's easy to forget that our growing digital universe is actually using as much electricity as things like heating and lighting, often targeted by environmental activists.

A recent report from the Digital Power Group gives some new statistics on how much energy the global IT economy consumes—about 1,500 TWh of electricity, which is roughly the amount used to light up the entire world in 1985.

It also begs the question: How green is the "cloud," and what can we do to conserve energy in the booming digital age?

The report points out that consumer electronics, like laptops and smartphones, use a lot of electricity. The energy suck isn't just from charging the devices, but from the tons of data produced by streaming video, sending text messages, running several applications at once on your computer, browsing Facebook or using Gmail—especially when all this internetting is done wirelessly, which it increasingly is.

With that in mind, advocates are calling on web companies to use alternative energy sources to lower the digital economy’s carbon footprint. As electronics and cloud services get more and more popular, it forces the issue: Can clean energy power the cloud?

Greenpeace took a close look at that question last year, in a report called How Clean Is Your Cloud? The nonprofit called on big internet companies to take responsibility and make better energy choices. It wrote that a meaningful strategy to clean the cloud must include both “direct investing and purchasing of renewable energy” and “demanding from governments and electric utilities to change the policy."

The good news is, tech companies are starting to take responsibility. Google, Facebook, and Apple are making an effort to use renewable energy like wind and sun to power their internet infrastructure. Now Greenpeace is calling on others, like Amazon and Microsoft, to do the same.

The other good news is that the digital revolution can help save energy in many ways. "Cleanweb"—the concept of the internet making businesses and services more efficient, thus conserving resources—is a rising trend. For example, Airbnb helps people share spaces, which is much more energy-efficient than big power-hungry hotels.

Google held a summit this June to study the environmental impact of the internet. Experts found that migrating more workers and industries to cloud services could save energy by consolidating servers and making data centers more efficient. According to a study by the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, “if all US business users shifted their email, productivity, software, and CRM software to the cloud, the primary energy footprint of these software applications might be reduced by as much as 87 percent.”


So, the information economy is using up energy, and helping conserve it. Let's hope the latter wins out. How can you do your part? For one, remember to turn off your electronics to avoid vampire energy—the power your still-on devices are using, even when you're not using them. Check out the GOOD video below for more information.

You can also go here to add telling tech companies you want a clean, green internet to your "To Do" list.


Image via (cc) flickr user Brent Hofacker

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