Al Gore, Google search for a greener Internet

How green is the Internet? Al Gore, Eric Schmidt and other experts packed a room at Google headquarters Thursday to explore the Internet's environmental impacts. With a crowd of about 100 people, it was the third event Google has hosted on this topic since 2009.

full agenda, Gore's star power, and scores of sustainability and cloud services gurus led to plenty of  stimulating discussions. Overall, Jonathan Koomey, research fellow at Stanford’s Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance, was particularly insightful.

It’s easy to be intimidated by an event where seven substantial energy papers are encouraged pre-readings, but Google wanted us to come prepared. Here were my five key takeaways:

1.    Use systems thinking to understand the Internet’s impact

In a fast-paced talk essentially defining the Internet, Koomey presented "the big picture view" of data centers, a core network, access networks, communications equipment and computers as its key components. Based on Koomey’s research from the last 10 years, system effects, like embedded energy from manufacturing end-use devices, are potentially much more important than direct electricity use. Similarly, other academics described their energy research on cloud-based applications, shopping, data transfer, wireless access, travel impact, personal electronic devices and information technology all in terms that framed their work with systems-based approaches. In other words, it's the connections that matter.

2.    The barriers to data center efficiency are institutional, not technical

You'll find the biggest inefficiencies within in-house data centers, Koomey said. Improving energy practices will save those owners over 50 percent. In general, investing in IT efficiency is most cost-effective, followed by infrastructure efficiency and sourcing of low-carbon electricity. This looks like a big cost-saving opportunity for businesses with smaller data centers.

3.    Look beyond the electricity used by Internet-related devices

Again, this goes back to systems thinking. Direct electricity use amounts to a little less than 10 percent of total electricity. By collecting more data and using it more effectively, IT can affect efficiency in the other 90 percent. This can be done through dematerialization -- moving bits, not atoms -- such as by consumers switching from CDs to music downloads, cities optimizing big systems optimization with smart parking sensors to reduce traffic, and companies using IT to create flatter, more nimble organizations.

4.    We need more data about energy and the Internet

Energy researchers need more recent data on electricity use and potential savings, more and better automated reporting of energy use and user behavior, and more Internet system efficiency case studies. "Getting the numbers right really, really matters," Koomey said.

5.    So, how green is the Internet? It depends

Like most things related to sustainability, there is no simple answer. In the context of Internet shopping, data centers require a lot of energy to power the Internet, but a consumer buying items online typically uses less energy than in brick-and-mortar retail shopping because there's no need to drive. However, if you live closer to the retail store and buy very few items online, your total energy use via the Internet could be higher because the energy to ship less items increases your footprint compared to a short drive to the store. 

Additional factors like variable user behavior and lack of reliable research data contribute to the conditional conclusions of academics and industry organizations.

To watch Gore and the other plenary speakers from the event’s morning agenda, check out the archived video stream here.

Note that we will be featuring more green data center discussions during our VERGE San Francisco event being held on October 14-17.

Optical fibers image by Tal Debari via Shutterstock.