The Internet – An Energy Wasteland?

Jan 10th, 2018 | By | Category: Energy and Carbon Emissions

By Candela Vázquez Asenjo, youth blogger, Transition Earth.

Google data center [, Creative Commons Attribution license]

Google data center [, Creative Commons Attribution license]

As this is a post on a blog, normally you would be reading it through any of your devices using internet. However, have you ever thought about the impacts of using the Internet? Likely the answer is no. For this reason, no matter how much we try to minimize our waste and be as sustainable as possible, our footprint is going to be bigger than we expected.

The Internet is one of the biggest pollutants on the planet today. The reason why many people are not aware of this is because they think that the Internet, where information runs freely between one device to another, has no environmental impact. Yet a study by a Melbourne-based research center found that if the internet were a country, it would rank as the fifth largest for energy consumption.

The truth is, no matter how green people think the Internet is, the amount of use, data collection and back up necessitates servers that are needed to store all this data in data centers which require unimaginable quantities of energy to keep them working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Some servers do not need that much energy but they are left on all the time, resulting in energy waste. Today, according to International Data Corporation, there are 8.6 million data centers worldwide.

The vast amounts of energy used to run data centers come from diesel or other non-renewable energies. In the U.S. alone, data centers consumed about 76 billion kilowatt-hours in 2010 – 2 percent of the electricity used in the country that year. Compare this to the paper industry, which consumed 67 billion kilowatt-hours in 2010, according to Electric Power Research Institute. The Data Center Dynamics in London provides similar figures. However, it is not just the date center servers that consume energy, but also industrial cooling systems and circuitry to keep backup batteries charged.


[Source: Jon Koomey,]

[Source: Jon Koomey,]

But not all companies obtain their energy from non-renewable sources. There are many companies that try to be sustainable and eco-friendly and, in an effort to save power and money, are starting to generate their own renewable energy sources, such as solar panels used by Apple and Google.

For security reasons, there is no open access to information on how much energy is required and used, nor where the data centers are located. Because of this, no single government agency has the authority to track the industry. Not even the U.S. government has been able to determine how much energy its own data centers consume. This lack of information makes it difficult to reduce energy usage.

Although there are no national U.S. figures available on environmental violations by data centers, it is getting the attention of state regulators. In Virginia and Illinois, at least a dozen major data centers have been cited for violations of air quality. For example, in 2010, Amazon was cited with more than 24 violations over a three-year period in Northern Virginia, including running some of its generators without a basic environmental permit and installing and running diesel generators without the standard environmental permits.


[Source: Jon Koomey]

[Source: Jon Koomey,]

Nevertheless, the solution should not fall just on the companies themselves as no one, neither the citizens or the companies, would be able to switch off any server or reduce the Internet use due to its necessity to our world. One main solution should come from entrepreneurs working to improve internet technology (IT) services. IT should establish a system where there is no need for so much energy by creating servers that require less energy and work more efficiently, such as being able to switch off and on, depending on the demand and frequency of use. For example, the Power Assure Company has a technology that allows commercial data centers to safely power down servers when they are not required. There are also other projects aimed at shrinking a 25,000-square-foot facility into 10,000-square-feet.

Would the final solution be to stop the use of social media and the devices that connect us to the Internet? Of course not. It is true that new technologies create a lot of pollution, but at the same time there are also many new devices coming out that pollute less.

But because this pollution harms the environment, we need to call for improved new technologies now. Until the time comes when the Internet could be authentically green, it requires those of us who care about the planet to make the difference. One of the easiest ways to start would be by deleting emails we all have on our accounts that are not useful – in doing so, you can do your part to reduce the storage data collected and kept off servers.

So share with your friends and family that decluttering our social media accounts is an essential first step to have a lesser impact on the environment.


Candela Vázquez Asenjo is an Environmental Management student at the University of Manchester, UK, and a Law student at the Nebrija University, Spain. She aspires to be a social entrepreneur, with a focus on international environmental problems.

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