The Potential Upside of the Netflix Price Hike

In the long term, streaming rather than shipping videos could help us all be that much more green.

In my household, subscribing to Netflix means letting a Sopranos DVD hang out on the dresser until we watch four episodes all in one week, while also reserving the right to watch Hot Tub Time Machine instantly. We haven’t quite come to terms with the idea that we’re going to have to pony up $6 more dollars a month for the privilege of both receiving thin red envelopes in the mail and streaming movies online.

It feels like a bum deal, but the upside of the price hike is that, in the long term, choosing streaming could help us all be that much more green. People who had to drive to video stores were already saving energy by receiving DVDs in the mail. (City dwellers who could walk to the store weren’t, though.) Last year, a group of computer science students at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, crunched the numbers on shipping versus streaming. The verdict: streaming uses 78 percent of the energy that shipping does.

Measuring the overall environmental impact is a little bit more complicated, though. Right now, streaming actually releases more carbon, thanks to the amount of electricity need to run and cool servers. The UMass-Amherst study found that with greener servers, however, the energy and carbon costs of streaming could dip dramatically below those of shipping: streaming could use 30 percent of the energy and 65 percent of the carbon that shipping does. To get that low, the data centers and servers would need to improve how effectively they use power. Companies like Google are already finding smart ways to do that.

The real energy burden of movie-watching, though, comes when you pop the DVD into a player or push play on a laptop screen. Running the device that plays the movie takes three to five times more energy than shipping or streaming, the UMass-Amherst study found. In this match-up, laptops do better than flat-screen TVs, so if you’re choosing to stream movies on a laptop instead of playing a DVD on a TV, you’re also winning green points.

In my apartment, the laptop is always the device of choice because there is no TV. Between Netflix, Hulu, and other internet resources, I can watch pretty much any show I want. It’s harder to quantify the quiet blow streaming has dealt to the TV as a device, but to the extent that streaming means that households have one less appliance to buy, keep plugged in, and harness to a variety of energy-sucking appendages, it’s helping decrease carbon footprints.

One point against streaming, though: All of the figures above came from a comparison of shipping one DVD to streaming one movie. But streaming can be so much easier. You have to be a dedicated fan to gather up enough DVDs of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or of the '90s-era X-Men TV show to keep you busy for hours. If you’re streaming an episode of a show, the next one is just a click away. If a switch to streaming means we end up spending that much more time watching the content Netflix delivers us, we’ll be using just as much as energy — or more — than we were before.

"The Upside" finds the silver lining in news stories that otherwise really bum us out. Read more here.

Photo courtesy of flickr user Jenny Cestnik, Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0

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