Internet Saves Energy

by William Yeatman on December 28, 1999

in Blog

The idea that the Internet will be an energy saving panacea is not new. After all, the ability to telecommute, to shop and gather information on the Internet and other useful services, have allowed people to use less energy on these activities. The question is whether the overall use of energy has decreased.

According to a study by Joseph Romm, executive director of the Center for Energy and Climate Studies, the answer is yes. The study shows that even though U.S. economic growth increased by 9 percent during 1997 and 1998, energy consumption per dollar of GDP fell 3.2 percent in 1997 and 3.9 percent in 1998.

This sharp drop in energy intensity has occurred even though energy prices are very low. Romm says that the Internet is the reason. Romm also claims that economic forecasts of the costs of emission reductions have not taken this into account. “If the model is right, then it makes all the other economic modelsall wrong, and that has its own profound implications,” he said. “We anticipate that were in a position, for example, where far less effort will be needed for the United States to reduce greenhouse gasesthan we once thought.”

Romm errs in his assessment, however. Energy experts argue that the reason energy consumption fell by such a large amount in 1997 and 1998 was due to a mild winter that lowered home heating needs, not because of increased Internet use.

Moreover, in evaluating the energy appetite of the Internet (the essential first part of any two-part equation to determine a net energy benefit), the study concludes:

“The authors found that the Internet itself is not a major energy user, largely because it draws heavily on existing communications and computing infrastructure.”

Mark Mills, CEI Senior Fellow, and co-author of a seminal analysis of the Internets electric appetite (Forbes, May, 31 1999), wrote, “Let me be kind; their observation about Internet energy use is breathtakingly myopic. Just what exactly do the studys authors think the past half decade of hundreds of billions in new investment in telecommunications and computing equipment has been for and driven by, if not the Internet?

“The exponential growth in equipment (and related Wall Street valuation) constitutes the electric-intensive infrastructure of the Internet. None of it was existing. The Internet does improve efficiency, but at the cost of greater electric use. The jury is out on whether the net effect is more or less overall energy use.”

The internet may indeed lower energy intensity, but the history of energy use shows that decreasing energy intensity almost always leads to greater overall energy use.

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