Server Farms vs Your Desktop PC – The Internet’s Carbon Footprint

Server farm
[a server farm…please refrain from server tipping – source]

The internet is the fastest growing source of CO2 to the atmosphere…it doubled from 2002 to 2006.

This is an excellent interview (12.5mins) with Bill St. Arnaud from CBC The Spark’s Nora Young. Bill is the director of CANARIE, a non-profit organization whose mission

[…]is to accelerate Canada’s advanced Internet development and use by facilitating the widespread adoption of faster, more efficient networks and by enabling the next generation of advanced products, applications and services to run on them.

The interview reminded me of a problem that faces most of the industrialized world: there are consequences for the way we choose to live. In short, it goes like this: those 500+ photos on your Facebook account, the dozen videos posted to your myspace profile or *insert platform* blog, the walking tall on, and the full-length feature pirated films you download all have to be stored somewhere (oh, and backed up of course) and thusly have real world ramifications. This requires a lot of server space, which in turn eats up a lot of energy bot to run them and equal amounts to cool them (i.e. a digital cause can impart a physically tangible effect on the Earth).

The result, according to Bill, is that the information super-highway has turned into the fastest growing source of atmospheric CO2 worldwide (more so than the airline industry). Of course, as the number of SUVs barreling down it increases (i.e. as more of the world joins the internet and actively engages in high-energy demand and user-experience oriented services), so will the rate of CO2 production.

Most people think of their own personal devices, but don’t realize how [many] computers are out there just to provide all that information we take for granted when we surf the web.

Where is most of energy being sucked up? Well, according to Bill two places: personal computers account for 50% of the internet’s energy consumption, while “server farms” (i.e. 100’s of gigantic buildings that span acres of land, housing 1000’s of servers that store the bulk of the net’s information) are responsible for other other half. These server farms account for the near doubling of CO2 production by net users: as more energy is required to run them, so too is required to keep them from overheating.

So what are internet companies doing about this? Plenty, according to Bill. Many companies, like Google, are currently developing zero-carbon data centers using alternative energy sources and freshwater coolants (instead of fossil-fuel driven air conditioning). A Canadian company in Nova Scotia is taking advantage of the large store of potential tidal energy in the Bay of Fundy.


So how do you get the general public to actively engage in the modern global warming spectacle?

Let us use these advanced tools, these virtual tools, as an incentive to reduce your CO2 emissions in other aspects of your life. This is where we think we’ll have a much greater impact in terms of the total carbon footprint[…]we want to reward people for behavior in terms of reducing their carbon dioxide emissions.

For example, CANARIE has started a pilot program in Ottawa that provides free high speed internet, routed through your heating bill. So,if you reduce your household energy consumption, you get free net access. Apparently, there are buses in the UK that provide free wireless to its customers as a way to promote a cleaner alternative to driving (while making money, lest we forget).

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Dave Semeniuk spends hours locked up in his office, thinking about the role the oceans play in controlling global climate, and unique ways of studying it. He'd also like to shamelessly plug his art practice: