When considering your personal energy use, the amount of electricity it takes to charge your smartphone is pretty small – just 4-9 kWh per year (the same as a few hot baths). But when considering the global spread of mobile devices, the electricity consumption becomes staggering. Also, your mobile device doesn’t just use energy when charging. Every time you check your email, download an app or use a map, you’re downloading data that is stored in massive data centers. What is now popularly referred to as “the cloud” is actually tens of thousands of enormous data centers, some can be seen from space, all over the country. According to the New York Times, data centers in the U.S. used 76 billion kWh of electricity in 2010. That’s 2% of the country’s electricity use. What’s upsetting about data centers is that they typically only use about 10% of the electricity that they consume. The rest of it is wasted powering servers that are sitting idle. The dirty energy they rely on has put data centers across the country in trouble with the EPA.
Is there a solution?
A few solutions exist for solving the problems of mobile and data energy use, and more are on the horizon. Typically used by hikers, Goal Zero sells portable solar panels that can charge electronic devices (these panels have weathered Everest and Antarctica). Small solar panels like this give people a great opportunity to charge up without relying on fossil fuels from the grid, but aren’t cheap enough to be a widespread alternative (charging your phone costs about 50 cents per year; Goal Zero’s cheapest panel is $80). However, Goal Zero recently teamed up with Pensa Design and AT&T to install Street Charge stations at 25 different locations in New York City. These sleek solar powered stations allow people to charge up their devices while on the move throughout the city. Another option would be solar generation directly built into your mobile device. SunPartner Group has designed a transparent solar P.V. (check out other innovations) screen that can be built into mobile handsets. For some cell phones and e-readers, you may never need to plug in at all.
Greening the cloud also presents an enormous challenge. Often, the incentives in the industry encourage centers to run far above full capacity 24/7, but some progress is being made. Greenpeace highlights some progress in their recent “Clean our Cloud” campaign, like greenqloud, a data company operating in Iceland where nearly 100% of electricity comes from renewable resources. Greenpeace’s campaign got Facebook to build its newest data center in Lulea, Sweden, where it can be mostly powered by hydroelectric power. Hopefully these innovations can keep pace with the enormous growth of the mobile data industry.