How Green Is The Internet?
In the twenty-first century we've seen immense diversification of marketing channels. While direct mail and many other traditional channels continue (see part one of this series), we see more and more resources going into internet marketing. We have come to expect instantaneous delivery of text and graphics, unaware of the winding path it might take along the way. Beyond the economic benefits (lower cost per impression, though not necessarily meaning lower cost per sale), one justification often stated is that the internet uses fewer natural resources. The New York Times recently took a close look at this.
The first example they explored was Facebook, with nearly a billion users posting day and night. To serve these users, huge buildings are crammed with rows and rows of servers stacked to the ceiling, covering hundreds of thousands of square feet. Servers for Google, Bing, Yahoo, and all the others are pretty much the same. The heat generated by all these processes demands industrial cooling systems that run around the clock. These facilities generally run at maximum capacity around the clock, regardless of demand. The desire for redundancy overrides any prudent energy concerns. In their year-long study, the Times learned that up to 90% of the energy consumed by these centers is wasted. To guard against an outage, they run diesel generators constantly, emitting polluting exhaust gases.
Digital warehouses worldwide consume 30 billion watts of electricity (U.S. data centers contribute up to a third of that total.) “A single data center can take more power than a medium-sized town,” said Peter Gross, who helped design hundreds of data centers. McKinsey & Company determined that only 6 to 12% of energy is used for actual computing; the rest is just keeping machines idling in case of a surge in demand, or to run the massive cooling systems.
Amazon runs eight major data centers just in northern Virginia. In 2010, they were fined over half a million dollars for regularly running diesel generators without obtaining environmental permits. Even without blackouts, generators emit exhaust from all the intermittent testing. The Times comments, “of all the things the Internet was expected to become, it is safe to say that a seed for the proliferation of backup diesel generators was not one of them.”
While the energy to run the internet on the front lines isn't as harmful as diesel exhaust, there is still a big difference between those run with renewable resources vs. those run with dirtier forms of electricity. But clean or dirty, it's a lot! Utilities nearly drool over the prospect of landing a data center in their territory. Due to their almost unvarying round-the-clock loads, they are prized as customers. According to CNN, anti-virus software firm McAfee reports that the electricity needed just to transmit the trillions of spam emails sent annually equals the amount required to power over two million homes in the United States while producing the same level of greenhouse gas emissions as more than three million cars.
Paper, on the other hand, is a renewable resource. According to the US Forest Service, in the United States, we grow more trees than we harvest. The amount of U.S. forestland has remained essentially the same for the last 100 years at about 750 million acres, even though the U.S. population tripled during the same period. Paper is the most recycled product in the world. Studies have shown that 30 minutes spent reading an electronic newspaper has about the same environmental impact as reading a printed newspaper. Marketers are not about to turn away from electronic media for their campaigns, but they are certainly weighing these factors when they develop integrated campaigns including direct mail.