Global Internet Energy Usage

Power Consumption that Supports our On-Line Habits

Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web in 1989 but given the fact that in 1990 only half a percent of the world’s population was online, the world on the web has grown astronomically.

By 2000, nearly half of the population in the United States were using the internet to gain information, but the majority of the world still had very little or no access to the internet.  According to Our World in Data, 93% in the East Asia and Pacific region had zero online access, alongside 99% in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.

In 2016, 76% of the US population were online, which seems quite a low figure when looking at the percentage of other country’s populations that were online around this time:

  • Malaysia 79%
  • Spain and Singapore 81%
  • France 86%
  • South Korea and Japan 93%
  • Denmark and Norway 97%
  • Iceland 98%

While online development saw rapid progress in these countries from 2000 to 2016, there are still some countries in the world where virtually nothing has changed since 1990.  In countries such as Somalia, Eritrea, Niger and Madagascar, fewer than 5% of the population are online.

But still, the growth of access is rapidly increasing across the world, with a remarkable 640,000 new users appearing online for the first time on any given day over the last 5 years – this works out as 27,000 new users every hour.

 Online habits and its energy consumption

Having gained an insight into the availability of the internet throughout the world, it’s now time to look at what it’s most frequently used for.

It’s of no surprise that just over half of all worldwide internet traffic (50.3%) generated in 2020 was done so using mobile phones – which is slightly lower than both 2018 and 2019, which saw 52.2% and 53.3% mobile traffic share respectively.  This slight dip is thought to be due to the coronavirus pandemic, with more people working from home and most likely using desktops or laptops more so than mobile phones to access things such as email apps.

Daily time spent with the internet by device per capita is still heavily in the mobile phone’s favor, however, with Statista reporting that the average person spends 155 minutes on their phone daily, compared to just 37 minutes on a desktop computer.

Social media

It’s of no surprise that more than half of the world (4.66 billion) uses social media.  It’s probably fair to say that if the necessary devices and the internet are available within a location, its population will use some form of social media.

As of January 2021, Facebook tops the charts with 2.74 billion users, followed by YouTube with 2.29 billion users and Facebook Messenger with 1.3 billion.  Instagram had 1.22 billion users at the start of 2021, and Chinese messaging platform WeChat was the fifth most popular form of social media with 1.2 billion users.

It’s not just the power we as consumers use to run our devices, but the power-hungry data centers used behind the scenes to power our favorite “scroller” sites.

Take Facebook, for example.  The company’s electricity usage has soared significantly in the last ten years. In 2011, it was taking 532GWh (gigawatt hours) to power the world’s most popular social media site.  By 2019, Facebook was using a colossal 5140GWh (5.1 terawatt hours).

What’s the energy consumption of other social media giants?

  • Each tweet on Twitter emits 02 grams of CO2 into the atmosphere
  • There are 50 million tweets sent on average per day, which means there is 1 metric ton of CO2 released daily
  • A billion hours watched on YouTube produces 11.13 million tons of carbon dioxide
  • Using Facebook daily for a whole year uses the same amount of CO2 as drinking one barista-made latte.

Cryptocurrency 

We’re not talking about the internet use of people selling and buying various cryptocurrencies online, but rather the internet power it takes to mine the cryptocurrencies.

But what exactly is crypto mining?  “Mining” for cryptocurrency is extremely energy-consuming, as it involves optimized computers running constantly to crack calculations to verify transactions.

A BBC News article published in February 2021 stated that the collective energy consumption worldwide for mining cryptocurrencies exceeded the annual electricity usage of the whole of Argentina, according to analysis done by Cambridge University.  Researchers said crypto mining consumes an estimated amount of 121.36 terawatt-hours of electricity a year, and will only increase the more cryptocurrencies increase in value.

With the rising value in cryptocurrencies, it’s not just the newcomers that will further increase electricity usage, but the ones who are already mining.  As the value goes up, nothing is stopping current miners from rigging up more machines to mine crypto, creating some kind of crypto-mining farm in their own homes and fully taking advantage of the crypto surge that seems to be dominating the internet.

Other facts and statistics about cryptocurrency’s energy consumption:

  • Bitcoin consumes around 110TWh per year which is 0.55% of global energy consumption
  • The CCAF (Cambridge Centre for Alternative Finance) reckons 39% of Bitcoin’s energy consumption is carbon neutral, as of 2020
  • China is responsible for 10% of global Bitcoin mining in the dry season and 50% in the wet season.

Cloud computing

The world is quickly transitioning to cloud storage, with the share of all data being stored on the cloud growing exponentially over the last five years.

The share of corporate data from organizations around the world in 2015 stood at 30%, which grew by 20% to 50% in just five years with the aim to improve both reliability and security.

While data centers around the world are required to power the cloud computing we take for granted, Pike Research, a clean technology market intelligence firm, suggests cloud computing could actually lead to a huge reduction in the world’s energy usage.

Pike estimates cloud storage growth will decrease energy “from the current rate of 201.8 terawatt hours to a 2020 rate of 139.8 TWh, resulting in a 28 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in the next five years.”

While cloud-computing facilities still consume a colossal amount of power, they provide the service for many different customers, compared to enterprise data centers that are built, owned and operated by companies and are optimized solely for their end users – most often housed on the premise of the company itself.

 

Published in Energy Helpline, July 25, 2021

Elisha Adams, Consultant | Researcher, Digital Content & Media

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