Does the Internet Save Energy or Not?

Dematerialization or Frontier Effect?

I was fascinated by this well-researched analysis of the energy usage of the Internet over at Low-Tech Magazine.

Essentially, author Kris De Decker argues that the Internet is a case of high rebound, where improvements in energy efficiency -- in everything from smart phones to data centers -- can actually increase our demand for energy-intensive digital services like video streaming.

De Decker sees this as a problem, since increasing energy consumption is of course terrible. So he suggests we need a "speed limit" for the Internet, perhaps by outlawing the use of video online or slowing the speed of wireless connections.

De Decker's diatribe signals a schism among technology and growth skeptics. In contrast to his (not quite) “ban the Internet” position, other environmentalists have celebrated the Internet for allowing us to live lower-energy lives. In his 2010 book Eaarth, Bill McKibben writes "The Net is the one solvent we can still afford; jet travel can't be our salvation in an age of climate shock and dwindling oil, so the kind of trip you can take with the click of a mouse will have to be a substitute."

So which is it -- does the Internet save energy, or does it present a new-and-perhaps-endless frontier of energy consumption? I'm sure it's a bit of both. The Internet and connected devices surely lead to efficiency and dematerialization by limiting the need for some kinds of transport and reducing the number of gadgets that need to be manufactured. Nonetheless, De Decker is right that already, the Internet represents 8% of global electricity consumption already, and that production is still growing rapidly. As more of us consume data, video, and web-enabled drone-delivered donuts, the energy consumption of the Internet will surely continue to skyrocket this century.

There are other frontier technologies that will likely add to this growth -- including indoor agriculture, minerals recycling, and desalination. That's ultimately a good thing for the transition to low-carbon energy. Energy transitions have almost always been accompanied by an increase, not decrease, in final energy consumption -- wood to coal, whale oil to petroleum, town gas to electricity.

Indeed, it has often been the demand for novel forms of energy consumption that has driven these energy transitions. First automobiles then airplanes were crucial for the diffusion of the internal combustion and jet engines. Electric appliances were crucial for the diffusion of electricity.

Could it be that both McKibben and De Decker are right in their diagnosis, but wrong in their prescription? McKibben is worried that our high-energy lifestyles will kill the planet, especially if billions of poor people around the world aspire to the rich world’s levels of comfort and security. So, according to McKibben, we need to switch to lower-energy lifestyles, by growing our own food, traveling less, and using the Internet. De Decker seems more worried that we’ll maintain our addiction to those conventional energy hogs — things like flying across the world to visit new cultures and loved ones and using energy instead of human labor to grow food — but that the Internet will simply add to our already massive energy consumption.

My prediction is that demand for both conventional and novel energy services will grow. How could they not on a planet where 80% of the population lives on less than $10 per day? But unlike both McKibben and De Decker, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. First of all, increasing energy consumption, as a rule, is a good thing: energy substitutes for land, labor, capital, resources…really everything. Secondly, increasing demand for energy can accelerate the transition to zero-carbon energy by creating new demand for new energy technologies. Without new and massive forms of demand, the dominance of technologies like nuclear and solar would surely be even farther away.


Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons