Wednesday, January 14, 2009

How green is your Google search?

That time you are spending on Google has its price for the planet. But how big that price is a little less clear.

The buzz started with this headline Sunday morning in the Times of London: "Revealed: the environmental impact of Google searches - Physicist Alex Wissner-Gross says that performing two Google searches uses up as much energy as boiling the kettle for a cup of tea".

But of course, it's not that simple. The story cites an upcoming paper by Wissner-Gross, an M.I.T grad with a Ph.D. from Harvard, on the energy consumption of web sites for some of its numbers, and then apparently factors in things like running your computer to get their number.

Wissner-Gross also calculated the CO2 emissions caused by individual use of the internet. His research indicates that viewing a simple web page generates about 0.02g of CO2 per second. This rises tenfold to about 0.2g of CO2 a second when viewing a website with complex images, animations or videos.

So guess who wasn't happy? Maybe, (break out the Church Lady voice here, people), Google? Urs Holzle responded late Sunday night on the company's official blog - saying that by their estimates, a Google search requires the same amount of energy that your body burns in 10 seconds - and in terms of greenhouse gases it is about 0.2 grams of CO2 produced.

That's about a thousandth of the greenhouse gas produced by driving your car one kilometer, according to Holzle.

And Jason Kincaid on TechCrunch notes that producing a book creates around 2500 grams of CO2, and that by some estimates building a cheeseburger is 3600 grams.

He also notes that if that Google search keeps you from driving to the library, we all win.

So is it 0.2 grams? 7 grams? Well, here's the punchline. In interviews, Wissner-Gross says he never mentions Google by name in his research! "Our work has nothing to do with Google," he told Tech News World. "Our focus was exclusively on the Web overall, and we found that it takes on average about 20 milligrams of CO2 per second to visit a Web site."

He did tell Tech News World that the Times quoted him correctly in the story as saying, "A Google search has a definite environmental impact" and "Google operates huge data centers around the world that consume a great deal of power," he confirmed.

"I don't think anybody would disagree with those statements," Wissner-Gross said. "Everything online has a definite environmental impact. I think everybody can agree on that, including Google."

So ultimately - two facts. First, we're all in this together - Google has every reason to seek out alternative ways to efficiantly run its data centers for speed and energy efficiency. And second - everything you do online leaves a carbon footprint.