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The Dark Side of Our Bright Digital Spaces: 21st Century Wizardry Relies on Dirty Energy of the Past

New technology like iPhones, laptops, and iPads wouldn't be possible without the coal-fired power plants whose design has changed little since the 19th century.

The internet through which you are reading these words can seem the very pinnacle of bright and shiny modernity. The web is clean. It’s glowing. It has an etherealness that feels apart from the brutishness of the world.

But don’t be fooled. These words are likely zipping to you courtesy of one the filthiest and most primitive forms of electricity generation: coal. The 21st century wizardry of iPhones, laptops, and iPads wouldn’t be possible without the coal-fired power plants whose design has changed little since the 19th century. Our futuristic present relies on the technologies of the past.

I was reminded of that ever-startling fact this week when Greenpeace released a report concluding that, if taken together, global information and communication technologies would represent the fifth largest electricity user in the world — behind the US, Japan, China, and Russia. The most prominent technology and communication companies — Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo, Google — all rely on some coal-fired electricity to run the data centers that make their products work, according to the Greenpeace report.

Today, the global information and communication sector is responsible for as much greenhouse gas emissions as the airline industry. Thanks to the explosion in the popularity of digital gadgets, that percentage is expected to double in the next 10 years.

A major reason for this is the surge in what’s called “ cloud computing.” Take Apple’s fresh-off-the-assembly-line iPad, which is just hitting stores. When users watch movies, check their Facebook pages, fetch emails, or search Google, most of the content isn’t stored on the device but instead is delivered in real-time from the internet, which relies, in turn, on giant data centers. Together, these data centers have become known as “the cloud” — an info-sphere that is both everywhere and, for that same reason, no place exactly.

In the US — the cutting edge of cloud computing — the information sector’s demands for energy are far outpacing global IT usage, even after taking into account all of the new computer lovers in India and China. According to Greenpeace, at current growth rates the data centers and telecommunication networks that undergird the cloud will triple their electricity consumption by 2020 and will then represent more than half of today’s electricity usage.

You might want to read that last sentence again: In just 10 years, internet technologies could be eating up more than 50 percent of the electricity we now use in the United States.

“What we are trying to do is get the public to understand that these are magical products, but they don’t appear magically,” Daniel Kessler, a Greenpeace press officer, told me. “They are powered by a massive amount of energy, a lot of which comes from coal.”

Kessler, for the record, has an iPhone. He also says that he, like many Greenpeace staffers, is on Facebook, which he loves.

That’s the same Facebook that takes some heat in the Greenpeace report for having recently constructed a datacenter (its first) in Oregon built by PacificCorp, a utility that gets the majority of its energy from coal.

In a nice twist, Greenpeace is using Facebook’s own platform to, well, campaign against Facebook. Kessler says in the last six weeks some 350,000 people have joined Facebook groups pressuring the social networking giant and other information technology companies to use their market clout to push for renewable energy policies.

“Facebook is building their very first datacenter,” Kessler says. “Are they going to do it in a sustainable way, or merely a slightly greener way? The datacenter that they built is energy efficient — but it still runs on coal.”

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