The Internet consumes extraordinary amounts of energy. This is how we can make it more sustainable

About 4.6 billion people use the Internet every day. In fact, 350,000 tweets have been sent on the last minute. We tend to think of the Internet as ephemeral, thanks in part to terms like “Web” Y “cloud” – but the servers that host all that data produce huge sums of emissions, leaving behind gigantic carbon footprints.

Today there are around 30 billion Internet-connected devices in the world. This includes personal computers, smartphones, televisions, and tablets, as well as a myriad of devices that use the Internet in more subtle ways, such as smart vehicles, smart home systems, and smart watches, dubbed the Internet of Things.

These Internet-connected technologies are already playing a key role in the transition to a cleaner energy future; eg home smart meters that is being implemented in many countries helps to monitor and therefore reduce energy use in the home. But as we rely on the Internet to process, use, and store more and more data, the power it uses increases. For the sake of our planet, we must make the web more sustainable.

Servers that consume energy

Investigate estimates that by 2025, the IT industry could use 20% of all electricity produced and emit up to 5.5% of the world’s carbon emissions. That’s more than the total emissions of most countries except China, India, and the US.

An increasing proportion of IT power consumption comes from data centers. These are buildings used to store data and computer hardware, which are almost always directly connected to the local network. electrical network. In most countries, that means they use mostly non-renewable sources of electricity.

About 50% of data centers are now “hyperscale”which means they contain more than 5000 servers and generally have more than 1,000 m². These are typically used by major players in the data industry, such as Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud, or Amazon Web Services (AWS), which only hosts 5.8% of all sites on the Internet.

Rows of black boxes linked by orange cables flank a corridor where two people inspect a box
Much of the world’s internet data is stored on servers like these.
Science in HD/Unsplash

Several of these data centers have been trying to reduce their environmental impact and, in the process, secure lower energy bills. Google has announced its goal of achieving renewable energy 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. data centers by 2030, and its first such data center became Operational last year near Las Vegas. To operate such centers solely on renewable energy, it is vital to locate them in regions with abundant available wind, solar, geothermal, or hydropower.

The last decade has seen another trend emerge: web hosting powered by renewable energy. An increasing number of website owners are choosing payment platforms like aws for space to store files on giant web servers.

In an attempt to lessen the environmental impact of all that energy use, some choose to purchase offsets, payments that compensate theoretically for carbon emissions by supporting low-carbon power generation, while others buy power from renewable sources to match their total energy consumption.

Meanwhile, a growing number of companies have installed renewable energy systems such as solar panels or wind turbines with battery backup to directly power IT infrastructure.

Building a sustainable Internet

As the internet grows, I’ve been looking for ways to build greater sustainability closer to home. Designing websites that use less energy could be an interesting way to start.

Every user logged in The conversation today it generates about 1.3 g of CO₂, depending on your location and connection speed. That’s not so bad: although not as good as Googlewhose relatively minimalist home page only generates around 0.2g per visit, is much better than the daily mailThe image-packed online home page generates a whopping 54.0g per visit.

Considering that the last two websites receive around 5 billion and 300 million visits per day respectively, it’s easy to see how our internet-generated carbon emissions add up. If you are curious about the footprints of other websites, website carbon is a simple resource to estimate the CO₂ produced by a website.

Web designers could embrace minimalism, helping reduce the power required to load images, videos, and even specialized fonts that require extra large files. Of course, this would make the Internet experience much less attractive.

Could the sun feed the web?

Another possible solution to navigate more sustainably is offered by initiatives such as sun protocol and the low tech magazine. These clever websites are completely powered by solar energy. Its responsive and eco-friendly web design strategies, including color-reduced images and default fonts, allow your websites to run more efficiently based on real-time assessment of available sunlight.

Solar Protocol, for example, runs over a network of solar servers located all over the world. When a user visits the site, their content is delivered from the server that receives the most solar energy at that time. The resolution of the website is also changed dynamically based on the power generated by the solar panel.

A house with solar panels mounted on its roof.
Local solar panels could be a solution to increase the sustainability of the Internet.
Vivint Solar/Unsplash

When the solar or battery power level drops below a specific threshold, due to, for example, a cloudy day, websites become low resolution. They might even go back to a basic text-only format when the clouds have really closed in and the power is particularly low.

The challenge designers and engineers face is scaling on-site power generation technologies like these to help run the massive number of sites on the web. Subtle changes to images or page resolution, made during periods of low solar or wind generation, could have significant effects on power consumption, but go unnoticed by users.

For businesses, the benefits of using technology like this include not only reduced energy costs but enhanced business reputationthanks to growing public concern about sustainability. Older 40% of UK businesses already generate some of their electricity on-site through solar panels or wind harvesting.

The largest solar farm in the UK, in Flintshire, Wales, it is mainly used to generate power for a nearby paper mill. So the next step of powering business websites from servers powered by locally owned renewable energy might not be such a radical step.

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