Is Google Green or Wasteful?

Google Smoke StackToday’s New York Times has an interesting article about how Google uses enough electricity on its own to power 200,000 American homes.  Google claims that it’s using that energy so that consumers don’t have to, and that in fact they do so more efficiently than consumers in aggregate would.  There’s some small merit to the argument they’re making, but it isn’t obvious at first glance.

Google’s argument is that they’re saving you a trip to the library when you do a search.  That might be true sometimes, of course, but the chances are you didn’t go anyway.  For one, you might have instead picked up your local yellow pages, or an Atlas, or written a postcard.  But yes, sometimes you might have gone to the library– with your car.

Often times we the consumers get tricked into thinking that all big numbers are meaningful.  Let me give you an example from the networking industry.  It is not unheard of for a high power Internet router to suck a lot of power.  A fully configured Cisco CRS-1 uses about 8Kw of power.  These are big pieces of hardware that can each serve the needs of thousands of customers.  Perhaps there are 2,000 of them and their ilk in America, and probably less.  And so at any moment that’s about 16 megawatts worth of power.  Big number, right?  And so let’s say that we found a way to cut their power consumption by 10%.  Per box, that’s 800 watts.  That’s a lot of power, right?

Now let’s look at a consumer router.  You know the ones- Linksys, D-Link, etc.  They use about 8 watts of power.  Of course there are about 89 million of those devices out there[1][2].  That means that savings of a single watt of power in those devices saves 89 megawatts.

Why do I mention all of this?  Who cares about how much power Google consumes?!  The real issue is the computer you’re reading this post with.  There are orders of magnitude more of those than there are of the computers that Google uses to return a search result or your email.

But what do you get for that energy usage?  Well, you don’t have to have your bills sent to you in paper copy, and you don’t have to use the ink to write a check, and you don’t have to have as many checks printed, and you don’t need to receive paper copies of the TV guide, and you might not even use DVDs any more if you’re using NetFlix.  In fact, you probably didn’t read the New York Times article on printed paper!  You don’t need to fax, because you can email, and you probably don’t even know how good your handwriting is, these days, because you’ve been typing.

This is not to say that the technology sector shouldn’t do a better job at recycling or energy use.  And it’s good that we look at the total cost of what we consume.  But let’s also recognize the benefits.

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