Making the Environment Pay for the Internet
When a website goes down, even if only briefly, it often results in a PR nightmare for the company who owns that site. Users are quick to flood the Internet with nasty comments, alerting the world to the site’s troubles. Twitter, Facebook, and Google are relied on so heavily around the world that even the shortest blip of irregularity from business as usual and the world hears about it—once they’re back online, of course.
What’s the cost to provide around-the-clock service and transaction processing for the world’s largest online companies? According to The New York Times, the cost to the environment is massive.
Enormous, sprawling data centers house rows of servers and the complex cooling systems required to keep them from overheating. The electricity necessary to power these centers makes up 2 percent of the nation’s electricity supply. While it’s difficult to process just how much that is, the Times points out that “Worldwide, the digital warehouses use about 30 billion watts of electricity, roughly equivalent to the output of 30 nuclear power plants… A single data center can take more power than a medium-size town.”
The amount of electricity being used by these data centers is alarming enough, but it’s the amount essentially being wasted that is the most troubling. A McKinsey & Company report detailed that that roughly 90 percent of the energy used "was essentially used to keep servers idling and ready in case of a surge in activity that could slow or crash their operations." Companies like Amazon, eBay, and other online retailers lose more than just their image if their sites go down; they risk losing revenue in the millions of dollars. Until recently, rampant electricity usage and pollution-creating backup diesel generators have simply been the cost of constant Internet access.
eBay is taking steps to reduce its carbon footprint on the world by reducing its electricity usage at their Utah data center by using Bloom Energy fuel cells that run off natural gas and biogas. John Donahoe, eBay’s president, said that the company intends “to shape a future for commerce that is more environmentally sustainable at its core.” Since The New York Times article came out, many have jumped into the discussion to point out what other companies are doing to improve their own energy usage.
It’s hard to think back to a time when we didn’t have on-demand access to the world’s data, and hopefully one day soon we’ll have a hard time recalling the toll on the environment having that access once required.