Saturday, May 23, 2009

Google Jeopardy - Answer: (13.5 bill ∻ 31) ∻ 1000 = x(.6)mile


What is the daily greenhouse gas emitted as a consequence of all Google searches described in the number of miles an average car would have to travel to emit the same amount of greenhouse gas.

And how many miles exactly is that?

Before today, I never flashed on the fact that Google might use a ton of energy. I started thinking about it when Joe Bigelow, a member of LinkedIn's "Green" group, mentioned a dark version of Google, "Blackle," as an energy saving alternative to Google.

Looking into it a little, I found green consultant Mark Ontkush's blog, EcoIron. In 2007, Mark calculated the energy consumption associated with the white background screen on Google, which motivated a virtual frenzy of dark screened creations, including Google-based search engines like,, and LOTS of others. Good ideas, no?

Ontkush said a dark Google would save 750 MWh a year. While Ontkush was correct, his calculations are true only for CRT monitors - the old monitors that most of us have replaced with LCD. He did those calculations in 2007, and there are even fewer CRT monitors today. Still, it's relevant for those who do own a CRT, common in some countries around the world.

Even so, unless YOU own one, using won't save a single Kwh.

But I did digress. The next article I found was a London Sunday Times article blasting the carbon footprint excesses of internet usage, The article was at least loosely based on a study done by Harvard Professor Dr Alexander Wissner-Gross, a physicist and Environmental Fellow at Harvard University. The Times said that two Google searches emit as much greenhouse gas as boiling the kettle water for a cup of tea (a decidedly British comparison).

Actually, if Google hadn't rush to defend itself, I might not have given that article much thought. I mean, who knows how much CO2 a stove emits as it readies water for tea? I assume not so much.

But Google did. Like King Kong off-handedly swatting away the planes, Google's explanation unintentionally back-handed me against a hard, cold wall. Google's official blog translated the tea kettle claim into a more familiar equivilent for we statesiders (miles driven):

"...the typical Google search returns results in less than 0.2 seconds. Queries vary in degree of difficulty, but for the average query, the servers it touches each work on it for just a few thousandths of a second. Together with other work performed before your search even starts (such as building the search index) this amounts to 0.0003 kWh of energy per search, or 1 kJ.

For comparison, the average adult needs about 8000 kJ a day of energy from food, so a Google search uses just about the same amount of energy that your body burns in ten seconds. In terms of greenhouse gases, one Google search is equivalent to about 0.2 grams of CO2. The current EU standard for tailpipe emissions calls for 140 grams of CO2 per kilometer driven, but most cars don't reach that level yet. Thus, the average car driven for one kilometer (0.6 miles for those in the U.S.) produces as many greenhouse gases as a thousand Google searches (emphasis my own - they wouldn't have been so stupid as to emphasize this)."

OMG - Say what?? A thousand google searches produces the greenhouse gas equivilent of .6 mile? There must be zillions of google searches a day! Hold on while I google it (ouch ouch ouch ouch!).

Up comes this, from, a firm that tracks search engine activities of all sorts: In April, 2009 alone, 13.5 billion google searches! The data is here, As you will see, Google has by far the largest market share of the search engines.

Doing the math, if I'm understanding Google correctly, that amounts to the same greenhouse gas emissions as:

driving 260,820 miles each April day
driving 7,824,600 miles for the month of April
driving 95,199,300 miles each year, extrapolating

Thanks, btw, to my friend John Goren, appellate attorney in Dallas who is also very handy with a calculator. He did the math and checked it three times. Although not until after we went 'round and 'round about whether to use the "Google engine only" statistics or the "expanded statistics." It went more or less like this:

Me: " says the expanded statistics are more accurate. Read the news story you sent me on it,"
John: "The Google blog source says their servers are extra-efficient, so their calculations might not apply to the expanded search sites. Read the blog you sent me,"
Me: "Well, if that's the case, then the expanded search emissions equivilent has actually got to be higher than a strictly google search, so the figures we give will be low. But still more accurate than leaving out all the hits caught up in the expanded search."
John: "OK."

Maybe Google will weigh in on this (I rather hope so), but John knows when to back off.

Ok, this is not the whole story.

First and foremost, we are the search engine. I mean honestly, how can I blame Google for the effect of my own search-mania? And Google the company espouses a firm commitment to sustainability. It has furthered this commitment in many, meaningful ways. You can read about them here,, and here, for a start. I would have found you more links, but I'm now feeling very frugal about searching beyond my means.

Although I suppose, in the interest of full disclosure, I should mention a blog blasting Google execs for owning a very eco-inefficient jet plane. Especially now, owning a plane feels a little like AIG officials taking their raises. Well, ok, not exactly. We're not subsidizing Google. But still. In fairness, TreeHugger also links the reader to earlier blogposts where it lauded the search engine giant for sustainability initiatives:

But angst gives way to innovation. Thanks to Megan Letts, also of my LinkedIn Green group, here are two Google platform search engines trying to put their money where their (our) emissions excesses are. Meet and Forestle uses its advertising revenue to protect endangered rainforest regions. Znout uses its advertising revenues to buy energy certificates that offset the energy consumption of its own servers and also the CO2 emission of the whole network infrastructure that is being used when you do a Znout search - including the energy consumption of your own computer!

Feeling rather guilty here (I don't really know anyone who uses Google more than I do), I think I'm going to try Znout for awhile. Unless they offer the same "scholar preferences" I can load onto Google scholar, I probably will continue to use Google for my academic research. But the more of us who migrate to sites like Znout, the more advertisers (and $$ to purchase trade credits) those sites will get. And the more likely Google is to implement some sort of trade credit program itself.

Tis a sad day in Googleville today....

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