These Moments: The Internet

16 November 2016

By Hubbel Relat

Long story short:

  • The internet uses a ton of energy. The vast network of data centers, cell towers, and satellite systems that comprise internet communications consume 10% of global electricity use.
  • Internet demand is growing rapidly, especially in the developing world. According to Mark Mills, hourly internet traffic will soon exceed the annual internet traffic in 2000. That means the internet will require even more energy in the future.
  • Fossil fuels supply the vast majority of the energy needed to power the internet. Natural gas, coal, and oil comprise 67% of U.S. electricity generation. We should develop as much energy as possible to keep powering our lives forward.

It’s generally accepted that electricity makes modern life possible. But where that electricity comes from and exactly how much energy is required to power our everyday amenities might be surprising to most people. Beyond just lighting up our houses, offices, and factories, electricity makes possible the internet and all those “unplugged” sources of entertainment that we are increasingly obsessed with – tablets, smartphones, and computers specifically. Sixty-seven percent of U.S. electricity comes from natural gas, coal, and oil.

The extent of mobile phone use and all its invaluable applications is largely understood but still staggering. It’s estimated that nearly 81% of adults in the US have smartphones totaling over 327 million phones. Globally, there are nearly 7 billion mobile phones as of 2013. What are people doing with these devices? Constantly communicating with each other, surfing the web, taking pictures, streaming video, and using apps to do everything from navigation to entertainment.  Alongside this boom, the near obsession with internet use and mobile phones is increasing at a stunning pace. According to a 2013 report by Mark Mills, hourly internet traffic will soon exceed the annual internet traffic in 2000.

Less well understood is the infrastructure needed to build and maintain this uninterrupted access to information. A combination of cellular towers and massively scalable servers, or data centers, make much of it possible – but not without a tremendous reliance on abundant, reliable energy (mostly fossil fuels). The rapid expansion of this system over the last few decades demonstrates the point. For instance, in 1985 there were 900 cellular towers in the US. By 2015, that number exploded to over 215,000! On the efficient end are the towers that operate round the clock and are connected to the grid, which are estimated to annually consume the equivalent energy use of an average American household. The inefficient towers located off-grid can eat substantially more energy though. These are more likely to represent many of the towers in underdeveloped parts of the world where a sophisticated grid does not exist. These are also the places where we can expect the biggest increase in future growth given consumer demand for mobile phones and broadband connectivity.

As to data centers, they started to be built in mass during the dot-com bubble and exceeded 3 million as of 2013. While their energy efficiency has increased exponentially, power is still their largest cost – more than the original capital investment even – and amounts to roughly 2% of all US electricity use and climbing.

For some perspective, the world’s digital activities today consume more energy than global aviation. Mark Mills estimates the energy consumption of the information-communications-technology (ICT) sector at 10% of global electricity generation. Keeping in mind that there are still large chunks of the world’s population without cell phone service and internet access, it is all but certain the ICT sector will require an even greater proportion of our energy needs.

This is not a fact to be concerned about or an argument for limiting energy use in other areas of our lives. Quite contrarily, it is a reminder of the valuable role that energy, and specifically electricity, plays in our lives. From mobile entertainment like Pokemon to granting millions of Africans access to a banking system, the internet, mobile phones, and electricity improves people’s lives. We should embrace this reality and seek to develop as much energy as possible to keep powering our lives forward.