Kate Mackenzie The internet, energy and the Columbia River

The technology industry often seems to have an innate degree of environmental credibility. Technology, after all, will be a critical element in reducing carbon emissions. There is the problem of disposing of pollutant-rich hardware, but some hardware companies actually do reasonable job of dealing with it; as their marketing campaigns frequently remind us. Lighter, faster web-based applications seem vaguely like a step in the right direction. Google even has a power meter in development. Distributed computing could perhaps serve as a model for distributed energy generation. And shouldn’t all that improved personal productivity goes hand in hand with improved efficiency?

Of course, it’s a little more complex than that.

The US Environmental Protection Agency estimated that in 2006, data centres were responsible for 1.5 per cent of electricity usage, and forecast this to grow to 3 per cent by 2011. Google is often the focus of coverage of massive, energy-hungry data centres, such as this recent Guardian reports on the company’s facility in The Dalles, in east Oregon’s Columbia River basin.

The centre reportedly could use “as much as 103MW of power to run – enough to supply every home in Newcastle” [a city of more than 200,000 people] by the time it is running at full capacity in 2011. As the world’s largest internet company Google’s energy use has come under scrutiny before, prompting it to last year release a little more information about its data centres about which it is traditionally secretive.

However Google is not alone – Yahoo and Microsoft both run data centres along the Columbia River in Quincy, Washington, taking advantage of the river’s hydroelectric dams for power, and its water for cooling the heat generated by such facilities. And Amazon is reportedly building a data centre, also on the Columbia River that is thought to be the sole user of a 10 megawatt substation, not far from Google’s Oregon facility.

The tech industry is not a monolithic entity: virtualisation’s biggest proponent, VMWare, says its tools can substantially reduce energy use. And Google non-profit arm is investing in solar thermal energy.

But the difficult question remains: with all the best will in the world, is computer technology likely to create a net reduction in energy use any time soon? According to this report, experts say the total energy use by the internet is increasing by 10 per cent a year; but hard figures are difficult to come by. This increase is not just due to new online services such as video and cloud computing, but also to growing numbers of people using the internet – which, just like the number of cars on the world’s roads and the number of households with refrigerators, is set to keep rising.