Editor's note: Jonathan Koomey will speak Oct. 14-17 at the GreenBiz VERGE conference in San Francisco.
Researcher Jonathan Koomey started digging into the connection between information technology and power consumption in the mid-1990s, but it wasn't until 1999 that he read some astounding projections that really sparked his interest.
At one point, the article in question suggests that up to half of the U.S. electric grid could be dedicated to powering the digital Internet economy by 2010.
"These claims led me to do research to figure out if they made any sense," Koomey remembers. "People who had seen my earlier work said, 'Oh, you have to dig into this because this is something that's getting a lot of traction.'"
Fortunately for Koomey and the rest of us, those projections were very, very wrong.
By 2010, for example, data centers accounted for approximately 1.3 percent of worldwide electricity use and 2 percent of U.S. electricity use, according to Koomey's August 2011 paper, "Growth in Data Center Electricity Use, 2005 to 2010" (PDF). This amount is growing, certainly, but at a far slower rate than we previously imagined.
Still, that article helped inspire an industrywide interest in the nexus of technology and energy efficiency that might otherwise have taken years to develop.
"It was the process of debunking those claims that led me to spend a lot more time on data center electricity use and also on the electricity use of all sorts of computing devices," Koomey recalls.
As he dug into the numbers, he actually discovered that efficiency has been improving since the days of vacuum tubes, a thesis he explored in his "One Great Idea" presentation at the 2012 VERGE conference in Washington, D.C.
This is one thing making the explosion of mobile devices such as smartphones and tablet computers viable, along with the associated reductions in the power consumption associated with client computing devices.
Consider that a desktop computer uses roughly 150 to 200 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity annually, compared with 50 to 70 kWh for a notebook PC, 12 kWh for a tablet or 2 kWh for a smartphone.
It's also a very important development for the so-called Internet of Things, the vast network of sensors emerging to support a huge array of applications related to green buildings, intelligent transportation systems and so on. Despite suggestions otherwise, these applications should have very little impact on overall IT power consumption.
Koomey, now a research fellow at the Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance at Stanford University, points to the example of Streetline Networks, which sells sensor-enabled smart parking solutions. The entire 40,000-sensor network in Los Angeles only requires a modest amount of power, he estimates.
"I think that just because there's a lot of devices, doesn't mean there's going to be a vast increase in the infrastructure needed to support them," he says.
Koomey explores the entrepreneurial potential for these applications in his 2012 book, "Cold Cash, Cool Climate: Science-based Advice for Ecological Entrepreneurs."
Our discussion wanders over to another hotly debated topic in IT circles: whether cloud computing -- under which businesses source capacity and applications across the Internet from specialized service providers -- is, in fact, greener than traditional on-premises approaches.
Given that some companies are still leaving 10 percent to 20 percent of their server capacity idle, Koomey's answer is definitely "yes" for loads such as email, calendaring and other basic functions. If a facility such as Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, staffed by some of the best computer scientists in the world, is going to the cloud, then it probably makes sense for far more traditional organizations.
"For in-house data centers that are standard business facilities, there is a strong case from both a cost and environmental perspective for going to the cloud," he notes.
Over time, it will become even more important to distinguish between public cloud services that offer businesses limited control over how their resources are managed and private cloud infrastructure that brings similar economies of scale along with tighter management parameters.
Ultimately, the debate simply comes down to which information services can best be delivered using public cloud infrastructure vs. those that carry some sort of special conditions -- such as security or transactional performance requirements -- that make a private or on-premises approach more viable.
Either way, the power consumption equation should be just one small piece of the decision, especially if your company has made substantial data center investments.
"If you're thinking about it in terms of energy efficiency, you've almost lost the battle," Koomey says. "It's actually a battle for using your capacity that would otherwise be idle. If you put it in those terms, in financial terms, then I think people would get it."
Updated Aug. 8 to clarify power used by Streetline sensors.