The Internet’s energy consumption

The internet has dramatically changed the way we access information. Also the way we use the internet is evolving quickly which results in increasing amounts of data being exchanged. At the beginning messengers were text-based tools and we used Google like an online encyclopedia. Nowadays we stream videos in HD (soon 4k, later 8k) on demand which requires point-to-point connections rather than traditional broadcasting, we search DIY videos to learn new things, share our photos on Instagram and keep in touch with our friends on Facebook.
All this requires data to be stored, processed and transmitted which consumes energy. In the following some considerations on the energy consumption of the internet.

It’s the physics, Stupid!

There are physical limitations regarding the minimum energy per transmitted or processed bit which is measured in Joule per bit (J/bit):

  • Computation: Landauer’s principle: At  room temperature (20°C), the Landauer limit represents an energy of approximately 2,75zJ/bit which equals to 2,75 x 10-21J/bit. Theoretically, room‑temperature computer memory operating at the Landauer limit could be changed at a rate of one billion bits per second with energy being converted to heat in the memory media at the rate of only 2,85 trillionths of a watt (that is, at a rate of only 2,85pJ/s). Modern computers use millions of times as much energy per second.[1]
  • Wireless data transmission: Shannon’s limits puts the physical limit on the wireless data transmission to around 1fJ/bit which equals to 10-15J/bit.: For practical number of antennas and channel gains, we can rather hope to reach the order of under 1pJ/bit which equals to 10-12J/bit in future systems.[2]
  • Wired data transmission: In principle underlies the Landauer’s principle, in practice three orders of magnitude more energy efficient than wireless, around 1fJ/bit.

Please note that both wireless and wired data transmission limits only consider the actual transport of data, totally ignoring any processing needed to encoding and decoding the data payload with different protocols and rooting it through many nodes from source to sink. With current technology an end-to-end internet data transmission of data is in the ballpark of 25 – 75µJ/bit[3]

Google, Facebook and Co.

Here some examples of famous internet services. One might wonder, why the presented energy consumption consider only to the delivery of data, but not the energy consumption of the end-user devices. This is because typically the end-devices can be neglected. For example with YouTube videos, delivering the content consumes 200mWh per minute of streaming video, while playing the video on your mobile consumes one order of magnitude less, or 25mWh per minute of playing video.[4]

Alphabet (Google’s parent company)

The energy needed to power a Google Search was 0,0003kWh in 2017.[5] In 2018 Google received over 63 000 searches per second on any given day. That’s the average figure of how many people used Google a day, which translates into at least 2 trillion searches per year, 3,8 million searches per minute, 228 million searches per hour, and 5,6 billion searches per day.[6] If we consider the energy per Google search we can calculate the energy consumption of Google searches for 2018 as follows: 0,0003kWh x 5,6 109 x 365 = 0,613TWh. But it is interesting that the total energy consumption of Alphabet was 22,776TWh in 2017, so it seems that Google searches consume only a tiny fraction of the total used energy of 2,7%. What are they doing with all that extra energy?!?

Total consumption of Alphabet:

2010: 2,26TWh[7], 2015: 5,70TWh[8], 2017: 22,78TWh[9]

Facebook

According to Facebook statistics there were 2,32 billion monthly active users (MAU) as of December 31, 2018[10].

Total consumption of Facebook:

2011: 0,532TWh, 2012: 0,704TWh, 2013: 0,822TWh, 2014: 1,035TWh, 2015: 1,31TWh, 2016: 1,83TWh, 2017: 2,46TWh[10]

YouTube

YouTube reported the following staggering statistics in 2019:[11]

  • Over 1,9 billion logged-in users visit YouTube each month, and every day people watch over a billion hours of video and generate billions of views.
  • More than 70% of YouTube watch time comes from mobile devices.
  • The average mobile viewing session lasts more than 40 minutes.
  • YouTube is the world’s second largest search engine and third most visited site after Google and Facebook
  • 400 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute

Together with the information that Streaming one minute of YouTube, eats up 0,0002kWh[12] one can calculate the energy consumption for 2018 as follows: 0,0002kWh x 109 x 365 = 4,38TWh

Bitcoins

There are also more hidden online services that have a massive need for energy, like cryptocurrencies. The energy used for mining is highly volatile and hard to predict and in the case of Bitcoin it is significant.

Total consumption of Bitcoin:

2017: 32.4TWh[13], 2018: 62.3TWh[14], 2019: 50TWh[15]

The big picture[16]

Let’s have a look what the above means in the big picture, related to the global electricity consumption. Also we need to consider the end-to-end energy need of our Information and Communication Technology (ICT) which consists of consumer devices (including their production) for end-user interaction, wired and wireless network to transport data to and from the end-users and data centers (here Google, Facebook and Co are included) that store/process/provide the data.

In 2018, the global consumption was 23 809TWh out of which 2 476TWh or 10% were ICT, the trend suggests that in 2030, the global consumption will be around 40 000TWh out of which around 8 000TWh or 20% were ICT. Remarkably the predictions show that the energy need of ICT grows much faster (exponential) than the global energy consumption (linear) and will account for 20% in 2030. This also means that ICT has an big impact on the global increase in consumption. It is also surprising that within ICT a significant consumption growth of data centers and wired networks is expected, while mobile data for example is predicted to stagnate despite the 5G plans of connecting billions of devices to the internet.

<elvis, 3.4.2019>

Accepting innovation

The reactions to technical innovation typically undergo the following nine stages:

  • Stage 1: “What is it good for? It’s worked without it before.” – “What the hell is it good for?” (IBM-Engineer Robert Lloyd welcoming the microprocessor in 1968)
  • Stage 2: “Who would want that?” – “That’s an amazing invention”, said US-President Rutherford B. Hayes 1876 about the telephone, “but who would ever want to use one of them?” And studio manager Harry M. Warner asked around 1927: “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?”
  • Stage 3: “The only ones who want new things are dubious or privileged minorities.” – In the 1990s, it was said the Internet was used exclusively by white, above-average educated men between 18 and 45 and that there was no chance of reaching wider audiences.
  • Stage 4: “It’s a fad.” – “The horse is here to stay, but the automobile is only a novelty – a fad”, Horace Rackham (Henry Ford’s lawyer) was advised by the chairman of his bank when wondering if he should invest in the Ford Motor Company.
  • Stage 5: “Denial of the impact.” – “Don’t be mistaken, (the machine gun) will not change anything,” the French chief of staff assured Parliament in 1920.
    • Stage 5a: “It’s just a toy!” – It is most likely just a nice toy without practical consequences: “a pretty mechanical toy”, as Lord Kitchener judged the first tanks around 1917.
    • Stage 5b: “No money to be made with it!” “(Airplanes) will be used in sport, but they are not to be thought of as commercial carriers”, predicted aviation pioneer Octave Chanute 1904.
    • Stage 5c: “It’s useless!” – “We hurry hard to construct a magnetic telegraph between Maine and Texas, but Maine and Texas may have nothing important to discuss,” suspected Henry David Thoreau in Walden in 1854.
  • Stage 6: “So in principle it is quite good, but not good enough.” – It is slow and cumbersome and will become ever slower: “Experts fear that the overload problem will reach a critical point within a few years, unless a solution is found first. Until then, the speed on the Internet will continue to decline noticeably,” Peter Glaser announced in the 1996 edition of Spiegel under the title “World Wide Wait”.
  • Stage 7: “Weaker people than me can’t handle it!” – The then 82 year old computer pioneer Joseph Weizenbaum declared in 2005: “Computers for children – that makes applesauce out of brains”.
  • Stage 8: “Creating an etiquette” – The etiquette issues that are now arising are connected with educating others to use the innovation properly. In the early days of letterpress printing, giving a printed book as a gift was regarded as indelicate; typed private letters had a taste of rudeness until the 1980s.
  • Stage 9: “If the new technique has to do with thinking, writing or reading, then it certainly changes those for the worse.” – The American Newspaper Publishers’ Association discussed the question in February 1897: “(Do typewriters) lower the literary grade of work done by reporters?”

In the rare cases in which the critic realizes that his accusations have already been made, he argues that this time, however, it is completely different and much worse. The US essayist Sven Birkerts wrote in 1994: “The difference between the early modern age and the present – drastically simplified – is that the body once had time to accept the transplanted new organ, while we now rush head over heels”. It currently seems to take about ten to fifteen years until an innovation has passed the foreseeable criticism. The SMS, which has existed since 1992, was 2009 only blamed for the decline of the language by extremely bad-tempered letter writers.

The more arduous therapy is called learning. Because low status gain intentions are not the main reason for the neophilia differences between the generations. Adult people simply know too many solutions to problems that no longer exist.

Based on Standardsituationen der Technologiekritik (Kathrin Passig)

<elvis>

Why are smart engineers typically hard to find in executive management?

Why are smart engineers not becoming top managers? Think of the following example: If the smartest engineer became boss of a rocket project, who would be designing the rocket engine? Right, probably the second smartest engineer. Now when we talk about a rocket we mean hundreds of tons of liquid oxygen and hydrogen in a big tin can. This alone is already scary, now the second best engineer designing any component of it sounds even more frightening… So the best engineer has to do the most important design jobs and because a rocket is big and complex also the second, third and 10000th smartest engineers are needed to design the other components. So only the dumbest is left for becoming the manager; or then you hire somebody who has not a clue about rockets, like someone from business school (Arghh). You see the problem evolving here…

Managers tend to have a big ego. I heard once a CEO say that he doesn’t like to be the smartest in the room because it bores him. Well managers, let me tell you the other side of the story: For a smart engineer it is easier to try to convince a smarter engineer of a solution than a dumb manager. Why? Because the smarter engineer will get the point and is ready to learn, or will prove the smart engineer wrong. The dumb manager would only make a random decision not understanding the problem at hand nor the implications of his decision.

<elvis>