Green-minded Google Gets Red-faced Over Search Energy Consumption Claims

 
 
By Clint Boulton  |  Posted 2009-01-12 Email Print this article Print
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

So much for clean, green IT and green computing for Google Web services. Harvard University physicist Alex Wissner-Gross says that Google uses a lot of energy. Specifically, two Google searches on a computer can generate almost the same amount of CO2 (carbon dioxide) as boiling a kettle for a cup of tea. When you consider the millions of Google searches users do daily, that's a lot of boiled water. Google proceeds to throw cold water on the metrics.

A Harvard University physicist told the Times that executing two Google searches on a computer can generate almost the same amount of CO2 (carbon dioxide) as boiling a kettle for a cup of tea.

A search generates about 7 grams of CO2, while boiling a kettle of water generates about 15 grams, concluded Alex Wissner-Gross, the Harvard physicist researching the environmental impact of computing.

Google's mantle as the No. 1 search provider combined with its massively parallel computing architecture to route search queries through several servers to deliver results are responsible for the energy burn.

The Times also talked to John Buckley, managing director of environmental consultancy carbonfootprint.com, who put the CO2 emissions of a Google search at between 1g and 10g and Chris Goodall, author of Ten Technologies to Save the Planet, who claims the carbon emissions of a Google search at 7g to 10g.

While there doesn't seem to be a clear consensus as to exactly how much CO2 Google searches create, the sentiment is clear: Google's search and Web services consume energy. Throwing cold water on Wissner-Gross' boiling water analogy, Google OpenSocial evangelist Kevin Marks more or less says everything we do expends energy, including breathing:

Google's data centre's are carbon neutral, so it is only the client end you do have to worry about. However, breathing generates about 6g of Carbon every 10 minutes. Or about as much as they estimate computers do.

Clearly, these claims by Wissner-Gross and Buckley touched a nerve at Google, which is a fervent supporter of green computing methods, or practices to ensure its Web services are provided with as minimal an impact on our environment as possible. 

Urs H??élzle, senior vice president of operations at Google, provided a more empirical defense of Google search, arguing Wissner-Gross' calculation that a typical search produces 7 grams of CO2 is many times too high. H??élzle said that Google's speed keeps it from burning so much energy because the servers a query touches each work on it for just a few thousandths of a second. H??élzle explained:

Together with other work performed before your search even starts (such as building the search index) this amounts to 0.0003 kWh of energy per search, or 1 kJ. For comparison, the average adult needs about 8000 kJ a day of energy from food, so a Google search uses just about the same amount of energy that your body burns in ten seconds.

Moreover, he said that one Google search is actually equivalent to about 0.2 grams of CO2 and that average car driven for one kilometer produces as many greenhouse gases as a thousand Google searches.

Nicholas Carr highlighted how Google is in a now-in situation, caught between trying to serve speedy Web services to millions of users while trying to do this as green cleanly as possible. Carr wrote:

Google is in something of a moral quandary here. It's dedicated to energy efficiency, but it's also dedicated to getting people to spend as much time using the Net, and their computers, as possible. (That's the very core of its ad-based business model.) The company hasn't disclosed its electricity consumption. It says that such details of its operations are competitive secrets. I'm sure that's true. I'm also sure it's true that Google doesn't particularly want us to focus too closely on its energy use or, for that matter, on the environmental implications of our own Internet use.

Om Malik pointed out that humans use a lot of energy in wasteful ways, so why is anyone pointing the finger at Google?

The findings by Wissner-Gross and the other researchers aren't about singling out Google for inefficiency so much as showing the impact computing in this Internet age has on the world at large. Google is the premier Web services company, whose servers generate results for hundreds of millions of searches per day.

It makes sense to start the conversation with Google, even if no one can agree on the energy consumption metrics. H??élzle said it best:  

"As computers become a bigger part of more people's lives, information technology consumes an increasing amount of energy," he said.

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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