There was a big fuss earlier this week when The Sunday Times of London published an article claiming that every Google search was the equivalent of boiling a pot of tea. My my, talk about a tempest in a tea pot. The Times attributed this bit of profundity to a prestigious Harvard University physicist named Alex Wissner-Gross, who is working on research on the environmental impact of computing.
It came out later in the week after everyone thought about it that this didn't add up. The Times quickly back-pedaled on story and Wissner-Gross said the writers had mis-interpreted what he said, but even though the story got it wrong, the basic premise is correct. Servers generate electricity and each time we search or perform any online activity whether Google, Twitter, Facebook, Qik, whatever we are burning electricity and that has environmental impact. That much is clear.
Not All Server Use is Equal
I wrote an article on green publishing for EContent Magazine several months back (which will be published next month) and talked to a bunch of smart people about this very subject. While it's clear that using servers on the scale that Google does has a huge environmental impact, the extent of that impact depends on many factors including the data center design, the physical location and the electricity source. What's more, Google is literally on the cutting edge of finding ways to minimize its environmental impact. It actually has a green energy czar.
What's Google Doing
According the Google Blog, the company is doing plenty and it staunchly defends its record:
In terms of greenhouse gases, one Google search is equivalent to about 0.2 grams of CO2. The current EU standard for tailpipe emissions calls for 140 grams of CO2 per kilometer driven, but most cars don't reach that level yet. Thus, the average car driven for one kilometer (0.6 miles for those in the U.S.) produces as many greenhouse gases as a thousand Google searches.
We've made great strides to reduce the energy used by our data centers, but we still want clean and affordable sources of electricity for the power that we do use. In 2008 our philanthropic arm, Google.org, invested $45 million in breakthrough clean energy technologies. And last summer, as part of our Renewable Energy Cheaper than Coal initiative (RE<C), we created an internal engineering group dedicated to exploring clean energy.
In the end, sure Google generates a lot of electricity, but as a company it has taken great strides to mitigate its impact on the environment. But the story did raise awareness that there is no such thing as a free lunch (or a free Google search) when it comes to the environment. Every action has an impact. The Times writers might have gotten the details wrong, but server use does affect the planet and it's good for us to know that and at least think about it.