Digital economy increases emissions: Mark Mills gets last laugh

Back in 1999 and 2000, a fierce debate raged as to whether digital networks and devices increase or decrease electricity consumption and emissions.  Does the growth of the digital economy jeopardize the Kyoto agenda by increasing emissions? Or is the Internet a “green” force reducing our energy and carbon intensity?

On one side of the debate, researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory argued that the Internet could help reduce emissions by, for example, promoting telecommuting, online shopping, and efficient supply-chain management. On the other side, technology analyst Mark Mills and co-author Peter Huber argued that the rapid proliferation of digital devices and networks was increasing demand for high-quality (largely coal-based) power.

The Berkeley Lab researchers directed a lot of fire at Mills’s “ballpark” estimate that Internet-based equipment and networks already accounted for 8% of U.S. electricity demand. I won’t try to settle that part of the controversy.

However, a just-published study by the International Energy Agency (IEA) shows that Mills was right about the big picture. Climatewire (subscription required) gives the gist of the study in its headline: “Soaring electricity use by new electronic devices imperils climate change efforts.” Herewith a few highlights:

  • Efforts by countries worldwide to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase energy security are in trouble if nothing is done to check the energy gobbled by both information and communication technologies and consumer electronics.
  • Energy used by computers and consumer electronics will double by 2022 and increase threefold by 2030.
  • The projected increase is equivalent to the current combined total residential electricity consumption of the United States and Japan.
  • To operate these new devices, households around the world will spend around $200 billion in electricity bills and require the addition of approximately 280 Gigawatts (GW) of new generating capacity between now and 2030.
  • The number of people using PCs will exceed 1 billion over the next seven months, and nearly 2 billion television sets are in use worldwide, averaging more than 1.3 sets per each household with access to electricity.
  • More than 3.5 billion people will be mobile phone subscribers by 2010.
  • In many households in OECD countries, electronic devices–a category that includes televisions, desktop computers, laptops, DVD players and recorders, modems, printers, set-top boxes, portable telephones, answering machines, game consoles, audio equipment, clocks, battery chargers, mobile phones and children’s games–consume more electricity than do traditional large appliances.
  • Household use of electronic devices is the major reason that residential electricity consumption is increasing in most countries.
  • Computers, related equipment and consumer electronics are responsible for close to 15 percent of total residential electricity consumption today, a share similar to that of other major appliance categories such as water heating or refrigeration.
  • Even with improvements foreseen in energy efficiency, consumption by electronics in the residential sector is set to increase by 250 percent by 2030.
  • “The share of electricity consumption by these appliances is therefore increasing to the extent that they will most likely comprise the largest end-use category in many countries before 2020, unless effective steps are taken,” said IEA Executive Director Nobuo Tanaka in a press release.
  • “These estimates suggest that total residential electricity consumption will increase more than many previous forecasts, and therefore pose a serious challenge to all governments with policy ambitions to increase energy security and economic development, and to mitigate climate change,” states the report.

Criticism of Huber and Mills got pretty nasty at times. But, as the old adage says: He who laughs last, laughs best.