ICT Energy Consumption in Perspective

Global ICT consumes ~8% of the world's electricity. How does that fit into the big picture of global energy consumption? And is that good or bad for the planet?

We have reported estimates for ICT electricity consumption over Vertatique's lifespan ranging from 2% to 10%. I am comfortable using ~8%, based on our most recent analysis.

Electricity generation accounts for ~39% of global energy use, according to the US EIA.. 8% of this equals ~3% of global energy use. By comparison, the UN FAO reports that ~30% of the world's energy goes to food production, processing, and delivery.

Still, ~1,200 TWh per year should not be ignored. How can we evaluate this consumption?

ICT energy consumption could be very beneficial, given the role ICT can plan in Clean Tech. For example, it is estimated that ICT has the potential to eliminate 7X the GHG it creates by making the world more energy efficient. This is just potential, of course. If all that ICT power is directed to watching cat videos or playing MMPGs, that will be a different outcome.

Communicating by email rather than physical mail can save as much as 30g of CO2e per ounce, a powerful argument for dematerialization. On the other hand, if we increase our communications frequency 100X, we negate the benefit.

Even seemingly frivolous uses of ICT can have positive effects when we consider substitute behaviors. A teenager spending his evening playing an MMPG has a much lower footprint than one engaging in the traditional American pastime of 'cruising' - driving a car around town for hours.

I'll close with a final note about broader perspectives. I've analyzed ICT use from an energy/GHG perspective. There are other issues. For example, since moving molecules is more labor-intensive than moving electrons, dematerialization can lead to job loss even as the environment benefits. The United State Postal Service is proof of that.

And one wonders about the long-term future of a society obsessed with pet videos.