Will our plugged-in planet have a green or black future? Greater reliance on Internet

Reply Tue 24 Jan, 2012 12:06 pm
Jan. 23, 2012
Will our plugged-in planet have a green or black future?
In some ways, a greater reliance on Internet makes Mother Earth smile.
The Kansas City Star

Chances are the Internet has changed something about your life. How you shop. How you stay in touch with school buddies or look for a job.

But has it made you greener? And will using the Internet more change your wear and tear on the planet?

The short answer is that the Internet could save energy, if not necessarily Mother Earth.

The more interesting answer comes in a longer conversation short on absolutes and peppered with unintended consequences.

In Kansas City, perhaps as much as anywhere in America, that discussion could become ever more profound. If Google Inc. succeeds with plans to blanket the market in lightning-fast Internet hookups — its service will make its debut in some neighborhoods this year — the change could be transformational.

We’ll have access at home to Internet fast enough to download the city library’s entire collection every minute. Speeds like that, Google hopes, will mean that we use the Internet more and in so-far-unimagined ways.

Some of that use could help us cut back on energy consumption, though some will surely add to our demand. The results will vary and often defy calculation.

“We don’t see the Internet as some silver bullet, but it will help cut energy use,” said Rob Atkinson, the executive director of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. “It can make a difference. It’s just not always clear in what ways.”

Let’s imagine you’ve got an office job. You drive 10 miles to work and 10 miles back. Now let’s outfit your house with Google’s promise of 1-gigabit-per-second Internet speed — bandwidth to burn.

Suddenly you tap not only into email but also your employer’s electronic nerve center. With a far faster Internet, you can have constant high-definition live video feeds with a dozen co-workers constantly. Crystal clear audio and video without a hint of delay. We’ve just eliminated all that gasoline burned on your daily commute.

But wait. You’re going to have the furnace or air conditioner in your home running more during the day. Your lights will be on. Unless your company has loads of teleworkers, there’s probably no energy savings at the office from having you at home. Instead of stopping at the gym on your way to work in the morning and the grocery on your way home, you make special trips.

Still on average, at least one study suggests, only 15 percent of the energy savings we make from eliminating your drive is wiped out by the new household energy costs.

Complex calculations

The potential factors that affect how much energy the Internet will save can feel endless, fed into the part-art, part-science craft of calculating carbon life cycle assessments.

Our calculations shift depending how far out in the suburbs you live and whether you drive a Suburban or a scooter, or hop onto a bus.

“There’s no ready answer,” said Kirk Cameron, a computer scientist at Virginia Tech University. “It ultimately depends on how you use the tools.”

What the early research shows often challenges conventional wisdom and offers clues to how an increasingly complex society needs to juggle often conflicting and confounding do-good intentions.

Various studies suggest that online shopping — while certainly bad news for the local mom-and-pop store — can cut carbon emissions. But the results depend on how much online shopping comparisons might replace driving to several stores, whether a shopper’s car trip includes multiple or single purchases on an outing, and how close the shopper lives to stores.

“So often when you get into these discussions, there’s so many times you say, ‘It depends if …’” said Jennifer Mankoff, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University.

In 2008, she published the article “Some Computer Science Issues in Creating a Sustainable World” about the changes driven by computers and the Internet. On one hand, Mankoff acknowledged the ways digital technology could be a powerful tool toward energy efficiency. One group of climate scientists estimated in 2008 that by substituting real-world energy choices with virtual activity, the Internet could cut global greenhouse emissions 15 percent by 2020.

Mankoff warned, though, that the way the digital age cranks up electronics for constant data swapping threatens that calculus. Computers, smartphones, iPods, Kindles and the rest of the fast-growing array of gadgets pose their own environmental cost.

They suck down electricity — albeit with improving efficiency — almost without pause. Their manufacture requires significant energy. And they are made of a sometimes toxic brew of chemicals and rare metals.

Already the information technology industry accounts for about 2 percent of the planet’s carbon emissions. Much of that is consumed in cloud computing, online data storage and processing. That rivals the emissions of worldwide air travel.

Power drain

Look at online games that allow a computer mouse or Xbox controller to steer avatars in hunts for virtual bad guys or to collect powers for pretend wizards. With Google Fiber connections, Kansas City could become game player heaven. Kansas Citians will have connections far faster than their competitors. Any latency between your thumbs and your characters’ movements will all but disappear.

That, though, takes electricity. A computer can consume almost double the normal electricity during such games, even as a remote server in some distant data center is gobbling down watts at roughly the same rate. In just a few hours of game playing, you can exceed the daily per capita electrical consumption for half the countries in the world.

“It’s not zero. Everything you do has an impact,” said Neal Elliott of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

Yet those humming cloud computing servers that allow the dwarf controlled by a guy in Connecticut to flirt with the princess controlled by a guy in Nevada also feel the tug of a powerful economic force. Whether it’s Combat Arms or World of Warcraft, Amazon or Google, the companies that operate data centers face strong incentives to save energy. Electricity ranks at or near the top of the costs for running the cloud.

What’s more, Elliott sees that cloud as a critical tool for lowering our costs of running a bricks-and-mortar world. Technology exists today with the promise of bringing Jetsons-age smarts to a system that could determine what we produce, where we make it and when we need it.

Imagine a significant number of people in Kansas City with Internet-tethered monitors in their refrigerators and tiny radio chips on milk, butter and cheese packages. Those refrigerators could feed data to regional dairies. Those dairies, in turn, could far better anticipate demand. That could signal whether to send delivery trucks to groceries in Brookside or Strawberry Hill and what best to stock in them. It might even offer clues about when to vary the diets of milking cows.

Food exceeds all other sectors for consuming energy. And spoilage, whether in the supply chain or your kitchen, wastes 40 percent.

“You could have just the right amount of food showing up in just the right place at just the right time,” Elliott said.

Consider a much-networked system wired over the Internet into a community’s thermostats. It could do more than rest home furnaces during the workday. It might factor in real-time weather forecasts.

Better yet, it could match those needs with demands of the power grid, coordinating hundreds of thousands of houses so a utility could minimize peak power demands — a difference that might mean less power drawn from coal-burning plants and more taken from wind farms.

Whether it’s telecommuting or thermostat crowd sourcing, some see the changes as inevitable.

“Whether it happens now or happens in 20 years, it’s going to happen because oil will just become too expensive,” said Matt Bauer, president and co-founder of BetterWorld Telecom, an Internet and phone service provider marketed as socially responsible.

We’re dematerializing

We’ve already made wide use of the Internet in ways that save resources, more out of convenience than ecological frugality. But the savings are there just the same. Consider how we watch movies at home. Not long ago, we’d drive to a video store to rent a box made of plastic and magnetic tape, a commodity that had been shipped long distances.

Today we can tell our PlayStation to stream us a movie, a process consuming a fraction of the energy it took to put that please-rewind cassette into the old VCR.

Or picture the beloved book, with its demand for wood pulp, ink and shipping. “War and Peace” now fits instantly in your e-reader without the harvest of so much as a twig. (Your Kindle gains, estimated one scientist, a billionth of a billionth of a gram from the added electrons of Tolstoy’s tome. An e-book’s carbon footprint is likewise far less than the real thing.)

That so-called dematerialization — replacing something actual with something virtual — transformed the way we buy music (see iTunes), pay bills (see online banking) and get our news (you can subscribe to a digital replica of this newspaper online).

The Internet increasingly could replace not just the stuff we buy but the stuff we do with less environmental impact. If instead of attending a convention in New York we participate by videoconference, we eliminate the equivalent of 100 20-mile commutes to work.

Regional officials of the Sierra Club now routinely teleconference rather than drive to a central location. Stephanie Cole, a spokeswoman for the Kansas chapter of the organization, said the meetings aren’t quite as good as being in the same room.

“But it’s good enough,” she said. “We can still accomplish what we need to.”

That same technology can also provide a fuzzier swap. With gigabit-speed Internet, it will become quickly practical to have a constant high-definition video feed from one place to another. Think of a working parent with a 10-year-old and a virtual window on the family living room, keeping tabs on the child in those latchkey after-school hours. The utility of such a setup is hard to miss, but so is the added electrical use of powering the computers, monitors and cameras.

“It’s like building extra lanes on the freeway,” said David Fridley, a staff energy scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. “More people are going to get on the road.”

That added Internet capacity will put new pressure on people to be mindful of what they use. At the Metropolitan Energy Center in Kansas City, executive director Bob Housh said people need to make sure their electronics don’t use so much wasted energy. Your cable box, for instance, is consuming nearly as much energy when you’re not watching TV as when you’re tuned into a ball game. Only by unplugging a gadget, or shutting down the surge protector you might have it connected to, can you stop the meter.

“It takes a conscious effort,” he said.

Ultimately, new ways will arise to get the most out of virtual existence. Some scientists at Microsoft Research, for instance, recently wrote a paper suggesting that data servers could do double duty. Today it costs nearly as much to cool down the football-field-size buildings that host much of the computer cloud as it does to power the racks upon racks of servers.

The researchers suggested that the servers could be connected with fiberoptic lines — the same technology Google is set to bring to Kansas City — and dispersed among homes. Then the heat they generate could supplement home heating systems. Such “data furnaces” would cut the cloud’s overall energy needs by more than half, even in toasty places such as Houston.

Georgia Institute of Technology computer scientist Vytautas Valancius was co-author of another study that said splitting data centers into a dispersed network might save energy in other ways. His work also was a recognition that our collective Internet light bill needs minding.

“We have to look for ways to save energy,” he said, “because we’re using so much of it.”
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