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The internet energy problem may not be as dire as you think—except for bitcoin mining

While tech companies are becoming more eco-fficient, bitcoin mining could be a long-term climate threat.

The internet energy problem may not be as dire as you think—except for bitcoin mining
[Photo: iStock]
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Despite what you might have heard about Big Tech companies and their colossal, energy-gorging data factories and supercomputing plants, they’re not the villains of Earth’s story, analysts say. In fact, they’re actually quite eco-fficient.

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That’s according to a pair of leading scientists in the fields of technology, energy, and the environment, both former researchers at California’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. In a recent commentary published in the sustainability-focused journal Joule, professors Jonathan Koomey and Eric Masanet argue that fearmongering over the environmental damage done by the rising tide of digital activity—particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic—may be slightly overblown.

Those dire claims come from well-intentioned researchers, they say, who might begin with reasonable assumptions that ultimately morph into gross extrapolations. That’s partly because they neglect to account for a very bright spot in the Silicon Valley enterprise: its lightning pace of technological innovation. From processing, to memory, to storage networks, computing is continually being revolutionized to impressive end. The authors cite data from two of the world’s largest network operators: Telefónica, a Spanish telecommunications company, and Cogent, an internet service provider based in Washington, D.C; in 2020, a 45% surge in data flow resulted in no extra energy consumption at Telefonica, and at Cogent, despite a 38% spike in traffic, the company managed to lower its power usage by 21%.

Innovation is happening at the biggest cloud data centers, too—the behemoths of square footage run by the likes of Amazon, Alibaba, Google, and Microsoft, which do eat up enormous amounts of energy. While the data workload of such places grew over 2,600% in the last decade, the energy usage across all data centers increased less than 10%, as less efficient, traditional computing centers were dropped in favor of cloud computing.

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That might seem like a win for Big Tech, but what about another vilified carbon giant: bitcoin mining? That’s actually worrisome, the authors say. Better efficiency doesn’t have the same effect on the blockchain because it’s always growing longer as tokens are passed from person to person, increasing the load of complex puzzles that supercomputers must solve to verify it during the mining process.

“It’s a hot spot that needs to be watched very closely and could be a problem,” Masanet told the New York Times.

According to an estimate from Cambridge University, bitcoin mining currently makes up 0.4% of the world’s energy consumption—which doesn’t seem like much, until you consider that cryptocurrency is only owned by an estimated 1.3% of the global population. Meanwhile, all the other data centers in the world consume just 1% of its energy.

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“I think that’s a pretty good, high value use of that 1%,” Koomey told The New York Times. “I’m not sure the same is true for bitcoin’s share.”