The Internet consumes extraordinary amounts of energy. Here’s how we can make it more sustainable

About 4.6 billion people use the Internet every day. In fact, 350,000 tweets were sent in the last minute. We tend to think of the internet as something ephemeral — thanks in part to terms like “web” and “cloud” — but servers hosting all that data produce massive amounts of emissions, leaving behind giant carbon footprints.

Today, there are about 30 billion devices connected to the Internet in the world. This includes personal computers, smartphones, televisions, and tablets, as well as countless devices that use the Internet in more subtle ways — such as smart vehicles, smart home systems, and smart watches — dubbed the Internet of Things.

These internet-connected technologies are already playing a major role in the transition to a cleaner energy future; For example, smart home meters that are being rolled out in many countries are helping to monitor and thus reduce home energy use. But as we depend on the internet to process, use and store more data, the power you use is increasing. For the sake of our planet, we need to make the web more sustainable.

Energy absorbent servers

Research estimates that by 2025, the IT industry could use 20% of all electricity produced and emit up to 5.5% of the world’s carbon emissions. This is more than the total emissions of most countries excluding China, India and the United States.

An increasing proportion of IT power consumption is coming from data centers. These are buildings used to store data and computers, which are always connected directly to the local electricity network. In most countries, this means that they mostly use non-renewable sources of electricity.

About 50% of data centers are now “ultra-domain”, meaning they have more than 5,000 servers and are generally larger than 1,000 square metres. They are typically used by major data industry players such as Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud, or Amazon Web Services (AWS) – which alone host 5.8% of all websites on the Internet.

Rows of black boxes tied with orange cables surround a corridor in which two people check the box
Much of the world’s internet data is stored in servers like these.
Science in HD / Unsplash

A number of these data centers are trying to reduce their environmental impact and, in the process, to secure lower energy bills. Google announced its goal of achieving 24/7 renewable energy data centers by 2030, and the first such data center went live last year near Las Vegas. To operate such centers of renewable energy only, locating them in areas where wind, solar, geothermal or hydropower is available is vital.

The past decade has seen the emergence of another trend: web hosting powered by renewable energy. An increasing number of website owners are choosing to pay platforms like AWS for space to store files on giant web servers.

In an effort to reduce the environmental impact of all these energy uses, some choose to buy offsets – payments that theoretically offset carbon emissions by subsidizing low-carbon power generation – while others buy energy from renewable sources to match their total energy consumption.

Meanwhile, an increasing number of companies have installed renewable energy systems such as solar panels or wind turbines with backup batteries to power their IT infrastructure directly.

Building a sustainable internet

With the growth of the Internet, I have been looking for ways to build greater sustainability closer to home. Designing less energy-intensive websites can be a fun way to get started.

Each user who logged into The Conversation today produced about 1.3 grams of CO2, depending on their location and connection speed. That’s not so bad: while it’s not as good as Google, whose relatively simple homepage generates around 0.2g per visit, it’s much better than Daily Mail’s image-packed online homepage which generates 54.0g per visit.

Given that the last two websites receive about 5 billion and 300 million visits per day respectively, it is easy to see how the carbon emissions from the Internet stack up. If you are interested in learning about the footprints of other websites, the Carbon website is a simple source for estimating the CO₂ that the website produces.

Web designers can embrace simplicity, which helps reduce the power required to upload images, video, and even specialized fonts that all require additional, large files. Of course, this would make the internet experience less attractive.

Can the sun turn the web?

Another potential solution for more sustainable browsing is being offered by initiatives such as Solar Protocol and Low Tech Magazine. These innovative sites are entirely solar powered. Their responsive and eco-friendly web design strategies – including low-color images and default typefaces – allow their websites to run more efficiently based on a real-time assessment of available sunlight.

The Solar Protocol, for example, operates over a network of solar servers located around the world. When the user visits the site, its content is delivered from the server that receives the most solar energy at that time. Website resolution is also changed dynamically according to the energy generated by the solar panels.

Rooftop solar panel home
Domestic solar panels can be a solution to increasing the sustainability of the Internet.
Solar Living / Unsplash

When the solar or battery level drops below a certain limit, due to a cloudy day for example, websites become low resolution. They can even refer to a basic text format only when the clouds are already closed and the power is particularly low.

The challenge for designers and engineers is to scale up on-site power generation technologies like this to help power a huge number of websites. Minor changes to images or page resolution, made during periods of low wind or solar power generation, can have significant effects on energy consumption – but users don’t notice them.

For companies, the benefits of using such technology include not only reduced energy costs but also improved business reputation, thanks to a growing public interest in sustainability. More than 40% of UK companies already generate some electricity on site through solar or wind panels.

The UK’s largest solar farm, in Flintshire, Wales, is mostly used to generate power for a nearby paper mill. So the next step of running commercial websites from locally owned, renewable servers may not be a drastic one.