The giant tech companies with their soccer-field-sized, power-hungry data centers are not the environmental villains they are sometimes portrayed on social media and elsewhere.
Turning off your Zoom camera or adjusting your Netflix service for lower definition viewing does not result in significant energy savings, contrary to what some have claimed.
Even Bitcoin’s predicted environmental impact, which requires a lot of computing power, has been significantly exaggerated by some researchers.
That’s the conclusion of a new analysis by Jonathan Koomey and Eric Masanet, two leading scientists in the fields of technology, energy use and the environment. Both are former researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Mr. Koomey is currently an independent analyst, and Mr. Masanet is a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. (Mr. Masanet received research funding from Amazon.)
They said their analysis, published Thursday as a commentary article in the scientific journal Joule, was not necessarily intended to be reassuring. Instead, they say, it means putting a dose of reality into the public discussion about the technology’s impact on the environment.
The increase in digital activity fueled by the Covid-19 pandemic has fueled debate and raised serious warnings about environmental damage, scientists say. They are concerned that blatant statements, often amplified by social media, could shape behavior and policy.
“We are trying to provide some tools and mental guidance to think about our increasingly digital lifestyle and its impact on energy consumption and the environment,” said Mr. Masanet. Masanet said.
The title of their analysis is “No Calculation: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Assessing the Internet’s Carbon and Energy Impacts.”
The exaggerated claims, the couple said, are often the deliberate efforts of researchers who make seemingly reasonable assumptions. But they are not used to rapidly changing computer technology – processing, memory, storage, and networking. When making predictions, they tend to underestimate the speed of energy-saving innovation and how the system works.
The impact of video streaming on network power consumption is an example. Once the network is up and running, the amount of power used by the network is the same no matter how big or small the amount of data is. And steady improvements in technology reduce power consumption.
In their analysis, the two authors cite information from two major international network operators, Telefónica and Cogent, which reported data traffic and energy usage for Covid 2020. Telefónica handled the increase. 45% data through its network without increasing energy usage. Cogent’s electricity usage dropped 21% even as data traffic increased by 38%.
“Yes, we are using more data services and sending more data across networks,” said Mr. Koomey. “But we also quickly became a lot more efficient.”
Another pitfall, the authors say, is to look at a high-growth sector of the tech industry and assume that both electricity use is growing proportionally and that it is representative of the industry as a whole.
Computer data centers are a case study. The largest data centers, where consumers and workers use services and software over the internet, consume huge amounts of electricity. These so-called cloud data centers are operated by companies including Alibaba, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft.
Between 2010 and 2018, data workloads hosted by cloud data centers grew by 2,600 percent and energy consumption by 500 percent. But energy consumption for all data centers increased by less than 10%.
The authors explain what happened was mainly the shift of massive workloads to larger, more efficient cloud data centers – and away from traditional computer centers, for the most part. owned and operated by non-tech companies.
In 2010, an estimated 79% of data center computing work was performed in traditional computer centers. By 2018, 89% of data center computing activities took place in cloud data centers.
“The major cloud providers have relocated far less efficient corporate data centers,” said Mr. Koomey. “You have to look at the whole system and take into account the substitution effects.”
The authors say that the complexity, dynamism and unpredictability of technology and market developments make it questionable to project more than two or three years. They criticized a paper on Bitcoin energy projecting decades, based on what they say is old data and oversimplified assumptions – an approach Mr. for the Apocalypse”.
But Bitcoin, scientists say, is something different – and something to worry about. Efficiency trends elsewhere in the tech sector are softened as Bitcoin’s specialized software executes more computation cycles than ever before as more and more people attempt to create, buy, and sell the cryptocurrency. number.
“It’s a hot spot that needs to be watched very closely and could be a problem,” Mr. Masanet said.
Much is unknown about cryptocurrency mining and its energy consumption. It uses specialized software and hardware, and secretly surrounds major cryptocurrency mining centers in China, Russia, and other countries.
So estimates of Bitcoin’s energy footprint vary widely. Researchers at the University of Cambridge estimate that Bitcoin mining accounts for 0.4% of electricity consumed worldwide.
That may not be much. But all the data centers in the world – not including those for Bitcoin mining – consume an estimated 1% of its electricity.
“I think it’s a pretty good, high-value use of that 1 percent,” Mr Koomey said. “I’m not sure the same holds true for Bitcoin stocks.”