Monday, September 24, 2012

Going Paperless Doesn't Mean Going Green, The New York Times Proves

Perhaps we can finally say goodbye to those simplistic "Go green, go paperless" promotional campaigns.

There's nothing particularly green about the massive data centers that store the internet's data, The New York Times revealed this past weekend after in-depth investigation. Data centers waste electricity and spew pollutants in a way that "is sharply at odds with its [the information industry's] image of sleek efficiency and environmental friendliness," the lengthy but clearly written "Power, Pollution, and the Internet" says.

"The industry has long argued that computerizing business transactions and everyday tasks like banking and reading library books has the net effect of saving energy and resources." But data centers use more electricity than the paper industry, according to the The Times.

Among other highlights of the article:
  • "Most data centers, by design, consume vast amounts of energy in an incongruously wasteful manner, interviews and documents show. Online companies typically run their facilities at maximum capacity around the clock, whatever the demand."
  • "The pollution from data centers has increasingly been cited by the authorities for violating clean air regulations, documents show. In Silicon Valley, many data centers appear on the state government’s Toxic Air Contaminant Inventory, a roster of the area’s top stationary diesel polluters."
  • Data centers use "only 6 percent to 12 percent of the electricity powering their servers to perform computations. The rest was essentially used to keep servers idling and ready in case of a surge in activity that could slow or crash their operations."
  • Most of the data are created by consumers. "With no sense that data is physical or that storing it uses up space and energy, those consumers have developed the habit of sending huge data files back and forth, like videos and mass e-mails with photo attachments."
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Anonymous said...

What I've been saying all along. Glad to hear that something is being published about it.

Papyrus said...

Its great to see more scrutiny on this issue from the big media outlets. This is certainly a great challenge to address and the lag time of knowledge and action has resulted in poor habits and a messy system with too much impact.

Remember, the "don't print your emails" results from a desire to eliminate redundancy, not paper. People use email over letters for convenience, not environmental reasons, so the message just encourages them not to increase their impact unnecessarily by printing it ALSO.

I think its interesting that, "data centers use more electricity than the paper industry" and it helps reveal the scope, since the paper industry is such a large energy user. Its also true, that's not an apples to apples comparison because of all the myriad of functions a data center is essential too, beyond those which could be replicated by paper. An interesting fact would be, how much energy would be used if everything a data center does with electrons was done with paper.

But again, while I feel that context is important, I also want to come back to the fact that our choices matter, even if its pushing SEND on an email. And that as an industry there's a lot of improvement urgently needed on this issue by information and technology companies.

Anonymous said...

There are too many factors left out. So the paper industry uses less electricity as data centers, huh? How much wasted labor is there and other resources?

If the data centers didn't exist or were on a much larger scale, wouldn't we be showing a huge upswing in paper usage?

If this report were to be truly accurate, it would probably be 150+ pages explaining what components were analyzed and tested.

I think people should think a little harder before believing stuff like this.

kumar's @44 said...

While most of the paper is generated from renewable source( cut tree and than grow tree) , a large part of the energy comes from fossil fuel.. Which can not be renewed.