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Help needed: 41 servants and counting

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Katie Singer
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an article about nature and technology
by Katie Singer

A few years ago, when I began questioning what it really takes to write and publish in our digital era, I wondered about electricity's true costs. I learned that on average, in order to light, heat and cool our homes; to refrigerate and cook food; wash and dry laundry; keep hot water available; send emails, talk on phones, watch tv and videos, write on computers and publish and read posts online, U.S. households use 1000 kiloWatt hours (kWh) of power per month.

Powering the average U.S. household needs 41 pedalers on bike-powered generators pedaling for eight hours each day.
Photo credit: David Shankbone

How much is 1000 kWh of power? The astrophysicist Adam Frank has explained that one able person can generate 24 kilowatt hours by pedaling a bike generator eight hours a day for 30 days. To generate 1000 kilowatt hours, 41 people would need to pedal eight hours a day for a month. In other words, for the average U.S. household, having electricity 24/7 means having 41 servants who pedal for you without a day off. [1]

But those 1000 kiloWatt hours do not include the energy involved in manufacturing my appliances or electronics.

This matters because 81% of the energy used by a laptop from its cradle to its grave is embodied: 81% of a laptop's lifetime energy will be used before the end-user turns that laptop on for the first time. [2]

One smartphone has more than 1000 embodied substances, including plenty of extracted and smelted rare-earth metals, solvents and other chemicals, each with its own energy-intensive, greenhouse gas-emitting, toxic waste-emitting international supply chain. [3]

The Internet's demands

Those 1000 kiloWatt hours of electricity average U.S. households use every month do not include the energy involved in maintaining the Internet's infrastructure--the energy-guzzling, toxic waste-emitting access networks (cables, satellites, routers, antennas, modems and battery backup systems) that let my computer transmit and receive data.

Those 1000 kiloWatt hours do not include the data centers (covered from floor-to-ceiling with servers and cooling systems) that store what I write. Data centers account for two percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. [4] The amount of energy consumed by data centers doubles every four years. [5]

Those 1000 kiloWatt hours do not include the energy used to discard or recycle my dysfunctional devices. At the end of their usable lives, electronics get shipped to dumpsites in Africa or Asia, where they may be burned to access copper, for example. Electronic waste impacts soil, water, air--and living creatures' health. Electronics do not biodegrade. They are hazardous waste.

Pedaling for the Internet

How many servants does it take to run the Internet (and access this article)? The late corporate anthropologist Jane Anne Morris calculated that 4.8 billion people pedaling for six hours each day could generate enough power to operate the 2010 worldwide Internet. [6] (Pedalers can look at read online while they pedal.)

Since 2010, the number of Internet users has more than doubled to 4.66 billion. [7] Gosh. We don't yet have nine billion pedalers available. To keep 2021's World Wide Web going, we'll need to increase the number of hours per bike pedaling shift.

I should note that neither Frank nor Morris calculated the energy or extractions embodied in manufacturing or discarding billions of bicycle powered-generators and batteries.

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Katie Singer writes about nature and technology in Letters to Greta. She spoke about the Internet's footprint in 2018, at the United Nations' Forum on Science, Technology & Innovation, and, in 2019, on a panel with the climatologist Dr. (more...)

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