While the internet carbon footprint is rising exponentially Google employs goats

Posted: May 5, 2009 in environment
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Surfers at an internet cafe in China Photograph: Dan Chung

The Guardian recently published a story on the exponential rise in energy consumption due to the increasing demands of internet users. With more than 1.5 billion people online around the world, scientists estimate that the energy footprint of the net is growing by more than 10% each year. This figure raises a number of concerns and issues:

  • The internet’s increasing appetite for electricity poses a major threat to internet companies such as Google and others who are struggling to manage the costs of delivering billions of web pages, videos and files online while profits (and especially advertising revenues) come under pressure as a result of the recession. One site under particular scrutiny is YouTube, now the world’s third-biggest website. Credit Suisse estimates that it could lose as much as US$470m this year, as it succumbs to the high price of delivering power-intensive videos over the internet.
  • The internet’s carbon footprint is increasing. From having a relatively small impact just a few years ago, the Guardian estimates that it is now leapfrogging other sectors like the airline industry that are more widely known for their negative environmental impact. Tracking internet energy usage though is difficult because the industry is keeping figures under wrap; knowing how many data centres Google for example has and how big they are is a trade secret. A study commissioned by the  EPA suggested that US data centres used 61bn kilowatt hours of energy in 2006; that is enough to supply the whole of the UK for two months, or 1.5% of the entire electricity usage of the US.
  • Efforts to achieve greater efficiency through technical improvements are being outstripped by continued growth and demand for new internet services – meaning that American data centres could account for as much as 80bn kWh this year.
  • The pressure on energy resources could result in website failures and communications disruption costing millions in lost business every hour – as well as power cuts and brownouts at plants which supply data centres with electricity. To combat these possible negative effects, the industry is working on new designs for data centres, innovative cooling methods and more investment in renewable energy; Microsoft researchers are even turning to older technology in an attempt to turn the clock back – by replacing energy-hungry new machines with the systems used in older, less powerful laptops.

Google was among the first internet companies to take action to reduce its footprint by developing its own data centres — but even though it pumped an estimated $2.3bn into infrastructure projects last year, it remains unclear whether it is winning the battle. But it is nice to see that Google takes its quest seriously to decrease its carbon footprint. A couple of days ago it posted the following information on its blog:

Mowing with goats

At our Mountain View headquarters, we have some fields that we need to mow occasionally to clear weeds and brush to reduce fire hazard. This spring we decided to take a low-carbon approach: Instead of using noisy mowers that run on gasoline and pollute the air, we’ve rented some goats from California Grazing to do the job for us (we’re not “kidding”). A herder brings about 200 goats and they spend roughly a week with us at Google, eating the grass and fertilizing at the same time. The goats are herded with the help of Jen, a border collie. It costs us about the same as mowing, and goats are a lot cuter to watch than lawn mowers.

Well, I guess you have to start somewhere, and it does sound cute and almost romantic 🙂 .


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