Internet accounts for almost 2 percent of the world’s total energy consumption

Michelle Bu/Staff

UC Berkeley researchers have estimated that it takes between 1 and 2 percent of the world’s energy to construct, run and maintain the Internet.

According to the research, which will be presented Nov. 14 at the Workshop on Hot Topics in Networks in Cambridge, Mass., the Internet uses between 170 and 307 gigawatts — about 1.1 to 1.9 percent of the 16 terrawatts of energy consumed by humanity.

The researchers — Justin Ma, a postdoctoral researcher in the UC Berkeley computer science division,  and Barath Raghavan, a researcher at the International Computer Science Institute — used a twofold approach to gather the data.

They first analyzed the Internet’s electricity use, which has been a common aspect of past studies of the Internet, according to the report. The researchers then considered the energy required to build and maintain the Internet’s infrastructure, such as servers and routers. According to the report, past research has typically excluded this so-called embodied energy, since it does not directly affect a device’s electricity consumption.

However, Ma said that by combining the Internet’s direct energy consumption with the embodied energy, researchers can glean a more complete  picture of total energy consumption.

Drawing on previously published research, Ma and Raghavan estimated that the world is home to about 750 million laptops, a billion smartphones and 100 million servers. They took into consideration the energy cost to produce each of these devices, as well as the energy of the devices that transmit Internet traffic, such as cell towers, optical switches, Wi-Fi routers and cloud storage devices.

According to Raghavan, the study has dual implications with regard to saving energy. The researchers concluded from the study that the easiest way to reduce the Internet’s energy use is to keep computing devices for a longer period of time.

“We have a culture where people feel they have to have the most up-to-date device, and that creates a lot of waste,” Ma said.

He added that consumers should use the Internet where possible to circumvent high-energy activities, such as transportation. For example, business travel is a frequent use of energy and a frequent expense for companies. According to the report, if 25 percent of the yearly 1.8 billion one-way air trips were replaced by teleconferencing, then about 285 gigawatts could be saved — enough to run the Internet.

Raghavan said this reduction could  help decrease oil consumption, which is critical since oil will be a major bottleneck for the United States beginning this decade.

Raghavan and Ma emphasized that given the limited amount of data, their calculations were not exact. However, they hoped the study would begin a conversation about energy consumption.

“The Internet should not be part of the problem,” Ma said. “Instead, we hope it is part of the solution.”