The Environmental Impact of the Data-Center Industry
The impact of data centers—really, of computation in general—isn’t something that really galvanizes the public, partly because that impact typically happens at a remove from everyday life. The average amount of power to charge a phone or a laptop is negligible, but the amount of power required to stream a video or use an app on either device invokes services from data centers distributed across the globe, each of which uses energy to perform various processes that travel through the network to the device. One study (weirdly enough, sponsored by the American Coal Association, its purpose to enthuse about how great coal is for technology) estimated that a smartphone streaming an hour of video on a weekly basis uses more power annually than a new refrigerator.
Both Cook and Cantrell argued that if the energy used by a computational process is renewable, the energy consumed by that process isn’t that big of a deal. And shaming consumers for their Netflix binges doesn’t exactly mobilize a base, and at the end of the day companies have a lot more agency to make technology choices that could lessen their environmental impact. Still, it seems weird that most people—most engineers building the platforms people use every day, even—lack the basic comprehension that different online activities have different energy impacts, or that an individual’s online activities have energy impact at all beyond a laptop’s battery life.