Hidden energy costs make the wireless cloud bad for the planet

Hidden energy costs make the wireless cloud bad for the planet

Summary: Forget data centres: researchers at the Centre for Energy Efficient Telecommunications (CEET) in Australia have calculated that wireless cloud access will generate as much planet-harming CO2 as 4.9 million cars by 2015

CEET report front cover

There has already been concern about the massive amounts of electricity consumed by the data centres required to support cloud computing, but new calculations show that this concern may be misplaced. CEET's report, The Power of Wireless Cloud (PDF), reckons that these data centres will only account for 9 percent of the energy used for wireless cloud computing by 2015. The much bigger problem is the 90 percent required to provide wireless cloud access using Wi-Fi, 3G and LTE services.

Dr Kerry Hinton, CEET's Deputy Director, said in a statement: "When Greenpeace analysed cloud efficiency it hit a nerve with the likes of Google, Microsoft and Apple by suggesting that data centres are to blame for a 'dirty cloud'. In fact, the problem is much worse, data centres aren't the biggest issue. The trend towards wireless is the real problem, and the networks are to blame. By 2015, the energy consumption of data centres will be a drop in the ocean compared to wireless networks in delivering cloud services."

CEET's report projects that the "wireless cloud will consume up to 43TWh [in 2015], compared to only 9.2TWh in 2012, an increase of 460%. This is an increase in carbon footprint from 6 megatonnes of CO2 in 2012 to up to 30 megatonnes of CO2 in 2015."

The calculation is based on figures for the number of micro-Joules required to send one bit of information via LTE, typical power consumption levels for ADSL routers and so on, and independent projections of the growth in the use of cloud services. It calculates that cloud users will be transferring 23 exabytes per month by 2015.

CEET's bar chart of total wireless cloud energy consumption
Total wireless cloud energy consumption. Credit: CEET report, The Power of Wireless Cloud

It seems unlikely that the result is any more than a ball-park figure, but it does make a significant point: Cloud computing is promoted as being "clean" because the data centres are relatively efficient in their use of energy. However, the reality is that it's dirty. Very dirty.

Historically, most users accessed the internet and cloud services via cable connections to desktop PCs. Today, these wires have often been replaced by wireless connections that are slower, less reliable, less secure, and more expensive to run. And while it's sometimes possible to switch to a cable, an increasing number of devices such as smartphones and tablets don't even have ports for wired internet use.

The main benefits are, of course, increased freedom and mobility, including the ability to access the cloud from places that wired internet connections cannot reach.

Another benefit is the ability to access cloud data from any device. But while this may appear to be free, it carries a considerable social cost. It consumes far more energy to keep streaming or downloading and uploading files wirelessly than it does to carry the same files around and access them from the local device.

One of the social aspects that CEET does not cover is the short life span of wireless devices such as smartphones and tablets, which are often very difficult to repair. Smartphones that cost $600/£600 may be junked after 24 months or less.

Although smartphone fans may be pleased that these devices could soon be selling 2 billion units a year, it's inevitable that we'll soon have to dispose of 2 billion mobiles a year. This is a waste of resources on a colossal scale.

CEET is a partnership between the University of Melbourne, Alcatel-Lucent (and its research arm, Bell Labs) and the Victorian State Government in Australia. It is dedicated to improving the energy-efficiency of telecommunications. Success also saves money, and should make telecommunications cheaper.


Topics: Cloud, Mobility, Networking, Wi-Fi

Jack Schofield

About Jack Schofield

Jack Schofield spent the 1970s editing photography magazines before becoming editor of an early UK computer magazine, Practical Computing. In 1983, he started writing a weekly computer column for the Guardian, and joined the staff to launch the newspaper's weekly computer supplement in 1985. This section launched the Guardian’s first website and, in 2001, its first real blog. When the printed section was dropped after 25 years and a couple of reincarnations, he felt it was a time for a change....

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  • Local storage

    I'm not sure I completely buy this. Wireless streaming may be dirtier, but it is also costlier than local storage. As a result, I suspect that financial incentives will keep data local that can be kept local. Take, for instance, cloud based music lockers. Sure, I could keep all my music on Google Music, and play it via a 3G connection, but then I'm unnecessarily eating into my monthly data allotment. I'd much rather keep my files on a 32GB microSD, and save the cloud access for stuff that changes frequently (like websites).
    • This is true....

      but some people have umlimited data allowances. For now.

      Another good trick is to stream a radio station that you could listen to on FM....
      Jack Schofield
  • And you gave someone else

    control of ALL your data for what stupid reason?
  • Just another good reason to avoid the cloud

    Just like I've been saying all along.

    It is interesting that this blog/article is surrounded by advertisements for cloud services!

    I suspect, however, that all those businesses and individuals who are embracing the cloud for convenience and to save money (or so they're told by the cloud providers) will wake up to the problems only when there is a catastrophic failure of the cloud -- such as a massive hacking attack, solar storms, etc.

  • Problem solved,

    kill the people not the PC. Genocide and a population cap at a few million world wide and eliminate all the farting cows and we're almost back to Eden.
    • Dr Wendell Urth says ...

      you people, fortunately, lack the emotion to manipulate the alien mind control artifact anyway.

      (referring to a well known Asimov short story)
  • Bad compared to what?

    OK put it into perspective. The total world electricity consumption in 2008 was 20,279 TWh vs the hi range for wireless cloud of 43 TWh quoted in this article. Now, more efficient is certainly desireable but calling it an "energy monster" as the statement did is silly.

    Without looking at the other side of the ledger it is pretty worthless. Examples:
    1) How much energy/resources are being saved in developing countries that are completely bypassing wired infrastructure and going straight to wireless? What will be the ultimate benefit to these people lives now having access to this information?
    2) How much energy/resources are being save by millions of people not having to keep additional local backups of their data?
    3) How much energy/resources are being saved by people getting immediate access to what they want without having to get in the gas guzzling car and go looking for it?

    See, plus vs. minus. Without looking at the benefit, things only cost. Doing almost anything besides staring at the wall is ultimately "bad for the environment". Think if how much energy everyone reading this article "wasted"?
    • Spot on, oncall

      So refreshing to see someone take the big picture into account.
    • And traffic jams ...

      How much fuel is saved by avoiding traffic jams through the use of "traffic-aware" GPS devices? At least the satellites are powered by solar energy with only an occasional use of propellant to tweak the orbits. But at least one (probably several) USAF and NORAD sites have 24/7 coverage to keep them working properly (and a few other countries have their own GPS clone fleets in orbit). Still nothing compared to "parking on freeways" for hours.
    • Thaks for the great comment....

      The problem is that even if wireless cloud services are beneficial in themselves, they're still bad for the planet in terms of projected energy consumption. It might not have mattered when there were 100 million users, but when you have 3-6 billion users, it could become a very significant problem.

      You can certainly argue that we'd destroy the planet quicker using alternatives, but either way, the planet ends up destroyed. This is not a desirable outcome.

      You make some good points, but...

      1) Ultimately, wireless still requires massive investments in masts and fibre. Both Wi-Fi and LTE are very short distance solutions, and the data gets transferred to wires as quickly as possible, either in the home or at the local exchange. In the short term, third world countries save money on delivering fibre to local cabinets and ultimately to homes, but rich countries are still installing fibre at a rapid rate. (In fact, they should have done it decades ago.)

      2) Probably not much, if any. Cloud services still use hard rives to save stuff, and the failure rate is high. There's a huge loss if people still have spare hard drive space locally, which most of them do. Retrieving remote stuff uses a lot more energy, and it's often pointless. You can fit a lot of data on a 128GB SD or 64GB microSD card and any device designer with a working brain is capable of including one in their hardware design.

      3) Yes, we agree: internet use should enable people to eliminate a certain amount of gas-guzzling. But he whole point of CEET is to encourage people to think about energy use and ultimately to make wireless networks much more energy efficient. People are not very likely to do this if they think using wireless has no energy cost at all, which is the current delusion.
      Jack Schofield
  • you're missing half the equation

    this data on its own means nothing at all. if you want to have a legitimate comparison you would need to compare this data/projection to the data/projection of the cost of A) the cost of producing, transporting, and installing the extra SSDs/HDDs that would need to be made to make up for what we are using the cloud for, B) the extra cost of producing and installing all the extra wiring that would be needed for lack of 3/4G and wifi (that's not just extra wires in your house, it would add up to miles and miles of wiring in office buildings, homes, between ISPs and buildings, between servers and data centers, etc etc), and C) the cost of loss in productivity that would come with limiting people to wired connections. this is probably the hardest one to quantify, and the one with the most serious cost. With the numbers of people coming into the wired world, making the infrastructure for all those people to be able to have access when they need it is probably impossible if you want it all to be wired access. this is especially true in emerging markets. something like 80%+ of Africans get their internet via mobile devices.
  • How about...

    Greenpeace uses papyrus or chisels stone and leaves us alone to do what we want?