November 30, 2023

The giant tech companies, with their power-hungry, soccer field-sized data centers, are not the environmental villains they are sometimes portrayed as on social media and elsewhere.

Turning off your zoom camera or throttling your Netflix service to the lower resolution display doesn’t result in a huge saving in power consumption, contrary to what some people have claimed.

Even the predicted environmental impacts of Bitcoin, which require a lot of computing power, have been vastly exaggerated by some researchers.

These are the conclusions of a new analysis by Jonathan Koomey and Eric Masanet, two leading scientists in the field of technology, energy consumption and the environment. Both are former researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Mr. Koomey is now an independent analyst and Mr. Masanet is a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. (Mr. Masanet receives research funding from Amazon.)

They said their analysis, published as commentary in the scientific journal Joule on Thursday, wasn’t exactly comforting. Instead, they said, it is meant to bring a dose of reality into the public discussion of the technology’s impact on the environment.

The surge in digital activity triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic has fueled the debate and led to serious warnings of environmental damage, the scientists said. They fear that stubborn claims, often reinforced by social media, could influence behavior and politics.

“We are trying to provide some mental tools and guidelines to reflect on our increasingly digital lifestyle and the impact on energy use and the environment,” said Mr Masanet.

The headline of their analysis reads: “Do not calculate: Avoid pitfalls in evaluating the energy and CO2 effects of the Internet”.

Exaggerated claims, the two said, are often well-intentioned efforts by researchers who can make reasonable assumptions. However, they are not familiar with rapidly changing computer technology – processing, storage, storage, and networks. When making predictions, they tend to underestimate the speed of energy-saving innovations and how the systems work.

The impact of streaming video on the network’s energy consumption is an example. As soon as a network is in operation, the power consumption is the same regardless of whether large or very small amounts of data are flowing. And constant technological improvements reduce power consumption.

In their analysis, the two authors cite information from two large international network operators, Telefónica and Cogent, who reported data traffic and energy consumption for the Covid year 2020 energy consumption. Cogent’s power consumption decreased 21 percent, although data traffic increased 38 percent.

“Yes, we are using a lot more data services and transmitting a lot more data over networks,” said Koomey. “But we are also becoming much more efficient very quickly.”

Another trap, the authors say, is to look at a high-growth sector of the technology industry and assume both a proportional increase in power consumption and a representative share of the industry as a whole.

Computer data centers are a case study. The largest data centers, where consumers and employees access services and software over the Internet, use huge amounts of electricity. These so-called cloud data centers are operated by companies such as Alibaba, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft.

From 2010 to 2018, the data workloads hosted by the cloud data centers increased 2,600 percent and energy consumption increased 500 percent. However, the energy consumption of all data centers increased by less than 10 percent.

What happened, the authors explain, was primarily a huge shift in workloads to the larger, more efficient cloud data centers – and away from traditional data centers, mostly owned and operated by non-tech companies.

In 2010, an estimated 79 percent of data center computing was performed in traditional data centers. By 2018, 89 percent of data center computing was in cloud data centers.

“The big cloud providers have displaced significantly less efficient corporate data centers,” said Koomey. “You have to look at the whole system and consider substitution effects.”

According to the authors, the complexity, dynamics and unpredictability of technology developments and markets make a projection of more than two or three years suspect. They criticized a Bitcoin energy paper that projected decades based on ancient data and simplified assumptions – an approach that Mr. Masanet called “Extrapolation to Doomsday”.

But Bitcoin, the scientists say, is something else – and a concern. The efficiency trends in other areas of technology have blunted as Bitcoin’s specialized software goes through more and more computational cycles as more people try to create, buy and sell digital currencies.

“It is a hot spot that needs to be watched very closely and could be a problem,” said Mr Masanet.

Much is unknown about the mining of cryptocurrencies and its energy consumption. It uses specialized software and hardware, and secrecy surrounds the major centers of crypto mining in China, Russia, and other countries.

Hence, estimates of Bitcoin’s energy footprint vary widely. Cambridge University researchers estimate that Bitcoin mining accounts for 0.4 percent of global electricity consumption.

That may not seem like much. But all of the world’s data centers – except those for Bitcoin mining – use an estimated 1 percent of their electricity.

“I think that’s a pretty good, high-quality use of that 1 percent,” Koomey said. “I’m not sure the same goes for the bitcoin portion.”