So Paul Graham and his Y Combinator venture firm have done it again: a new site called CO2stats has a clever way for any website to offset the carbon emissions associated with electricity needed to make the Internet magic happen.
And trust me, it ain’t magic. There’s a lot of electricity going into making that magic. And all that electricity creates a lot of greenhouse gases.
According to the CO2stats site:
The carbon footprint of air and automobile transportation is widely known, but few people are aware that the electricity generation required for information and communication techologies (ICT) is now responsible for 2% of global CO2 emissions, exceeding the emissions of the entire aviation industry.
(emphasis mine). In my real jobs, I have managed a number of data centers, the places where most web sites have their computer and networks installed. These cavernous buildings are designed to provide very high reliability of electricity, and a climate-controlled space to install the computers. This site is hosted at one.
Electricity Use By Data Centers
So these data centers provide the juice to run rack after rack after rack of computers — probably on the order of 5,000 computers per data center, maybe more, and then provide the juice to run the air-conditioners that get rid of all the heat that those computers create. Oh, and the humidity has to be right. It’s massive.
(In fact, we just got a note from our current data center promoting the fact that they had figured out how to suck in the cold northeast air instead of using electricity to run air conditioners to cool the space. Duh.)
(And, there’s also a growing movement towards centralized data facilities that don’t require the site owner to purchase and manage a separate computer, called virtual servers or cloud computing, such as Amazon.com’s EC2 service. By utilizing all of what each computer can deliver, and by greatly reducing the need for redundant hardware that’s running all the time but not being used, this should make a big difference).
Electricity Use By Computers Browsing the Web
…CO2stats adds a bigger factor causing CO,sub>2 to the air. It’s probably you, reading this, that dominates the energy use … from your computer and monitor.
How do they know? See the little “Green Certified Site” icon in the upper-right — it knows how to send along the info because your web browser knows things like how big your screen is, and generally where you’re located (anonymous, don’t worry) that the company factors in to it’s measurement of the energy used to display a page. Where you are matters, because, for example, here in the Northeast, most of our electricity comes from coal which has a much greater CO2 footprint than other ways to generate electricity.
Of course there are other ways to get green electricity. For example, your utility might offer a program such as ours, NStar Green that allows you to get your electricity from wind power. Or TerraPass which will buy offsets for your household energy use.
But it seems like the right thing to do for businesses to take responsibility for their carbon footprint. (Indeed, it seems like a really good idea for businesses to take responsibility for many of their other actions that affect the world, but … well that’s another story :-)
Purchasing Renewable Energy Credits
In the end, CO2stats buys renewable energy credits (RECs) for the total carbon used by its sites. Thus, all the bad electricity is used to subsidize the construction of clean, alternative energy sources like wind, solar, and geothermal.
For me, the cost is $4.95 per month — the few hundred of visitors that read my drivel every day result in only about 6,000 page views per month. The sites my company runs have some millions of page-views per month — offsetting that volume will cost us $100/month to CO2stats. Presumably what’s left over is the gross profit CO2stats can use to pay its staff and other expenses … and with some left over to make their founders rich.
It’s quite possible that my little monthly expense for this service is duplicated — maybe you have bought offsets for your carbon use, or some other cool things. Until we start seeing the US carbon footprint decreasing in a substantial, sustainable way, it seems like a worthwhile cause to support.
I’m rooting for them, and all the other little companies, like TerraPass, IdealBite, GreenDimes and many others that are finding ways to make a buck by helping solve the crisis that’s even more important than the financial one.