Section Four - Energy efficiency
A story about Despacito, watching Netflix and sending email (16 minutes)
First watch this video, as long as you like.
The music video for “Despacito” set an Internet record in April 2018 when it became the first video to hit five billion views on YouTube. In the process, “Despacito” reached a less celebrated milestone: it burned as much energy as 40,000 U.S. homes use in a year. And, even if you did not watch this video, it’s probable you’ve already replied to a couple of emails today, sent some chat messages and maybe performed a quick internet search or have done a crash course. As the day wears on you will doubtless spend even more time browsing online, uploading images, playing music and streaming videos.
You are using energy.
The energy consumption of digital technology
Digital technology uses a lot of energy and the amount of energy used is growing and growing. The energy consumption is estimated to be divided among the various components as follows:
- Data centres: 19%
- Networks: 16%
- Computers: 17%
- Devices: 20%
- Smartphones: 11%
- Smart TVs & Other: 17%
Energy usage is generally bad for the environment. It adds to the so-called carbon footprint. But what exactly, is a carbon footprint? Watch this simple explanation in 2 minutes:
And now watch another video on the impact of digital technology on the carbon footprint (3 minutes):
The main problem, as stated, is that the use of digital technologies grows really, really fast. There is AI, cloud computing, webshops, videoconferencing, internet of things, autonomous vehicles, and so on. For now, because this crash course only takes an hour, let’s look at two prominent developments: Bitcoin and video traffic.
Just to get a taste of the size of the ‘problem.’
First, a small explanation of Bitcoin (3 minutes):
Bitcoin is very, very energy consuming because of the so-called mining and validation process. Bitcoin accounts for roughly 0.25 percent of the world’s entire electricity consumption. That’s Switzerland. That is as much energy as all the tea kettles in the UK use over 11 years. It’s well-established that Bitcoin requires a huge amount of electricity, used by miners around the world running the computer hardware necessary to maintain the network and validate payments. But it’s also worth remembering that these figures are very much estimates.
Regardless of the exact figures, the energy usage of Bitcoin is certainly eyebrow raising. It has increased rapidly, sometimes doubling in less than six months, and this sort of energy usage comes with a significant carbon footprint. Though, again, exact estimates of this environmental impact vary significantly because of the difficulty of determining how the electricity used to power Bitcoin’s mining hardware is generated.
Bitcoin also looks unwieldy in terms of day-to-day utility. The network processes fewer than 100 million transactions per year, a “completely insignificant” figure, compared to the 500 billion payments processed by the traditional financial industry. Still, estimates are that Bitcoin uses more energy per transaction than all the rest of the world’s banks combined.
And, to make this figures more shocking, Bitcoin has only been around since 2009.
We already briefly mentioned this at the start of this section. Another very large consumer of energy is video traffic: 80% of all data transferred online is video data, with nearly 60% of that being online video, meaning streaming videos stored on a server and viewed remotely, via sites like Netflix, YouTube, HBO, Amazon Prime or Vimeo.
The problem: transferring videos online is data-intensive. In 2018, online video traffic was responsible for more than 300 million tons of CO2, equivalent to what a country the size of Spain releases in a year — for all sectors combined. The higher a video’s resolution, the more data that’s required. Ten hours of high-definition film consumes more bits and bytes than all the English language articles in Wikipedia put together.
In crash course two we learned that platforms use all kind of tricks to keep you engaged. Large technology companies try to make their platforms as addictive as possible. They also know that our brain likes videos and that we engage even more with video content. This also adds to the incredible amout of watched videos.This can be very negative to your well-being, as we have seen in crash course 2, but it is also very negative for the environment.
You are launching a new video streaming app. You are branding this as a very, very environmentally friendly app. What characteristics make your app really energy efficient and environmental friendly? Use this PowerPoint template to list some design principles: (CC9_XperienceME_Exercise.pptx).
An answer can be found here (CC9_XperienceME_Exercise_Answered.pptx).
It is typical for discussions about energy and carbon footprint that comparisons are often made. First, watch this short video (1 minute):
You can make conparisons like:
- Sending email for a year is like driving 200 miles in your car;
- watching one Netflix series is like flying to…;
- and so on.
You can also flip them:
- Videoconferencing is very energy consuming, but 5 people driving to a meeting has a much larger carbon footprint;
- Email is bad for the environment but sending a letter is even worse.
This makes the discussion on energy efficiency very fuzzy. When you add the element of the type of energy used than it becomes even more complicated. Some energy is more environmentally friendly (wind, sun) than others (burned fossile fuel). YouTube for example has an A-rating, while the rating of Netflix is D.
Take aways from section four:
- Digital technologies have a very large carbon footprint;
- This is growing exponentially;
- Some technologies (Bitcoin, video) are even more energy consuming;
- That's why digital technologies need to think about their carbon footprint;
- After all, digital technologies are often less energy consuming than analog alternatives.