Mark Mills’ recent report “The Cloud Begins with Coal” has received much attention in the past weeks, but largely for its comparison of the energy use of an iPhone versus a refrigerator. This factoid has become a distraction. Aside from his dependence on dubious statistics, Mills erroneously ignores the real benefits technology provides in combating climate change. A better strategy for us is to focus on promoting policies that enhance data center innovation, increase the use of ICT to lower energy use, and promote the development of next generation energy and transportation systems that utilize high performance computing to better regulate and manage power consumption.
Given the explosion of information and communications technology (ICT) and the proliferation of tablets, smart phones, and other high tech devices, it is pertinent to investigate the potential climate change implications of an increasingly digital world. This is the topic of the Breakthrough blog post “Bracing for the Cloud,” which rightly points out that “we need to be thinking seriously about how we can power the information sector with cheaper, cleaner alternatives.”
However, instead of engaging in a reasoned policy debate on this important issue, a number of advocates have chosen to prematurely sound the alarm and warn of the eminent “danger” ICT energy consumption will cause, without presenting all of the facts or providing a complete picture of the climate challenges we face.
Most recently, Mark Mills’ report The Cloud Begins with Coal claims that ICT energy consumption has been underestimated, will continue to rise in the future, and will have an increasingly significant impact on climate change. Unfortunately, his arguments are backed by dubious statistics that do not hold up to significant investigation. Mills states for example that smart phones use a tremendous amount of energy, claiming, “When you count all components of usage – not just charging – the average iPhone consumes more energy annually than a medium-sized refrigerator.”
However, numerous experts have argued that Mills’ numbers are vastly overstated. In fact, a study by University of New South Wales professor Gernot Heiser indicates that smart phones actually use four times less energy than Mills claims.
Even more important than the lack of accuracy is Mills’ inability to note the value ICT provides in reducing energy use, improving energy efficiency, and developing low-carbon alternatives. In fact, an American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy report found that for every unit of energy used by IT, six to 14 units of energy are saved in the overall economy.
For example, streaming video, mobile technology, and high-speed broadband have increased opportunities for telecommuting, telemedicine, and virtual meetings, reducing carbon-intensive auto and air travel. In addition, new data analytics technologies, such as Hadoop, allow us to condense and analyze vast amounts of information more quickly than ever before, which reduces data center operation and energy use. Data science also opens up new avenues to identify areas to increase efficiency and reduce consumption. Finally, email, mobile technology and cloud computing have significantly reduced the use of paper in all aspects of society. This is particularly important given that paper manufacturing is one of our most energy intensive industries, requiring about 3,405 kilowatt-hours of energy to produce 100 tons of paper, which dwarfs even Mills’ inflated estimate of 361 kilowatt-hours for an average smart phone.
By erroneously hyping ICT energy consumption and ignoring the real benefits technology provides in combating climate change, Mills and likeminded activists are missing the point and losing a real opportunity. A better strategy would be to focus on promoting policies that enhance data center innovation, increase the use of ICT to lower energy use, and promote the development of next generation energy and transportation systems that utilize high performance computing to better regulate and manage power consumption.
This could include enhancing business-government consortiums like Green Grid, which are already making major advances in data center efficiency and increasing federal investment in smart-grid technology and intelligent transportation systems. For example, applying real-time traffic data to signal lights could reduce stops by 40 percent, cutting gas consumption by 10 percent, and decreasing carbon dioxide emissions by 9,600 tons.
It makes no sense to rail against iPhones. Instead we should focus our efforts on developing the game changing, next generation energy innovations that will allow clean energy to cost less and perform better than fossil fuels. And let’s be clear, to do that ICT must be a major component of our innovation strategy. Advocates and policymakers must accept this reality if we are to fix the climate challenges we face.
Robert Atkinson is the President of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.