Technology is helping us save the earth. Right? Well, it feels that way if we’re spending more time reading online and consuming fewer paper-based books, magazines and newspapers. Perhaps you’re streaming video instead of driving to the video store for
plastic DVDs or, even worse, those now obsolete videotapes. Some of us are even weaning ourselves from gasoline with an electric car, a hybrid or a more fuel-efficient gasoline car. We’re even using the internet to cut down on trips to stores, the library and – sometimes – the doctor’s office. From all appearances, we tech-savvy consumers are doing a lot to save natural resources, improve the air, and help stave off climate change. Or are we?
Tech has an impact
While much about tech can help save the planet, it also has a negative impact. Every time you do a search or visit a website, you’re not only using electricity to power or re-charge your device, but the servers that power those websites are also using power.
In 2014, according to a study by Berkeley Lab, “data centers in the U.S. consumed an estimated 70 billion kwh, representing about 1.8 percent of total U.S. electricity consumption.” That’s enough energy to drive an electric car nearly 18 billion miles.
In 2011, Time reported that “Google says it spends about 0.0003 kWh of energy on an average search query.” That doesn’t sound like much, but multiplied by 3.5 billion searches a day, it’s enough to power 200,000 homes.
The good news is that Google, Facebook, Apple and many other technology companies have invested in renewable energy. In a blog post, Google says it’s “directly buying enough wind and solar electricity annually to account for every unit of electricity our operations consume, globally.” But as noble as that is, it doesn’t mean that Google is completely off-the-grid, because there are times and places where it’s not possible to use the renewable energy that it buys.
Giant server farms aren’t the only use of energy. Collectively, our devices consume an enormous amount of power. I’m not suggesting that anyone stop using PCs, phones and other devices, but there are things we can do to save power such as making sure our devices go into sleep mode (or are turned off) when not in use and trying to disconnect all those power bricks and chargers in our house when they’re not in use because of the standby power (also called “vampire power”) they consume simply by being plugged in. One way to do that, with many devices, is to plug them into power strips and turn off the strips when you don’t need the power. There are exceptions. Printers, for example, can malfunction if they’re not shut down properly and you should avoid removing power from PCs without first properly shutting them down.
Manufacturing and disposing of technology devices also has an environmental impact, which is worth thinking about when you’re on the verge of replacing a perfectly good working device with a shiny new model. I’m not suggesting that you hang on to your cell phone for decades, but there is an environmental cost associated with each new device. When you do upgrade, try to find a good home for your old device, and if that’s not possible, be sure to properly recycle it.
I bought an electric car last year, and even though I love not having to buy gasoline, I’m aware that there are trade-offs. An article in Scientific American quoted a 2004 analysis by Toyota, which found that as much as 28 percent of the carbon dioxide emissions generated during the life-cycle of a typical gasoline-powered car can occur during its manufacture and its transportation to the dealer.
When it comes to electric vehicles, a study from the Union of Concerned Scientists has bad news followed by some really good news about the environmental impact of electric cars. The bad news is that “Manufacturing a mid-sized EV with an 84-mile range results in about 15 percent more emissions than manufacturing an equivalent gasoline vehicle. For larger, longer-range EVs that travel more than 250 miles per charge, the manufacturing emissions can be as much as 68 percent higher.”
Before you use that study to justify continuing to use fossil fuels, consider the next paragraph, which states that “battery electric cars make up for their higher manufacturing emissions within eighteen months of driving—shorter range models can offset the extra emissions within 6 months—and continue to outperform gasoline cars until the end of their lives.” So when you’re ready for a new car, definitely look at electric and hybrid models, including plug-in hybrids.
Tech to the rescue
There are plenty of technologies that can save electricity, natural gas and water by shutting off devices when not in use. We have an IoT system at our house that shuts off or dims lights and appliances on a regular schedule, and a timer that not only turns our sprinklers on and off, but thanks to a WiFi connection, adjusts the watering based on the weather.
Larry Magid is a tech journalist and internet safety activist.
Published at Thu, 18 Apr 2019 23:45:11 +0000