Because Google has developed its search engine to provide you with results as fast as possible, its search queries are actually consuming a significant amount of power, resulting in substantial CO2 emissions per search query, Harvard PhD student Alex Wissner-Gross, creator of CO2Stats tells the London Times. How much is a lot? An average search on the Google emits 7 grams of CO2 — so, two searches on Google uses the same amount of power as boiling water in a tea kettle. (Update: Google disagrees with that data, and says an average search query emits closer to 0.2 grams of CO2, and that 7 grams is “many times too high.”)
Wissner-Gross, who will be speaking at our Green:Net conference in March in San Francisco, calculated the data for his Harvard research on the environmental impact of computing. He says the power consumption of a Google search-query is so high because the company’s process sends data to numerous competing servers, sometimes thousands of miles away, in order to bring back the result as fast as possible. The article didn’t compare the carbon footprint of a Google search to that of other search engines, but Wissner-Gross’ research also found that looking at a simple web page emits 0.02g of CO2 per second, and a more complex web site with video and images emits closer to 0.2g of CO2 a second. (That means our online video sister site NewTeeVee is in trouble!)
My guess is that Google is very aware that its architecture is more power-intensive than it could be, but it has determined that the speed of the query is critical to its business success — and therefore more important than bringing down that power consumption.
Remember, power use is a cost for Google and other computing companies, so bringing down power consumption of anything in its infrastructure is just good for its business, beyond the environmental impact. And Google has long been very aggressive about reducing power in its data centers, as well as investing in other ways to make itself and the computing world more eco-friendly. So, if there was an easy way for Google to reduce that per-query energy consumption, it probably would have done it already. It’s not like the company doesn’t pay attention to this sort of thing.
But perhaps bringing attention to the situation will push Google to look at more innovative ways to reduce that per-query energy consumption. Is there a way to provide results at a slightly slower speed at certain times of day when search volume is lowest? Or, here’s a somewhat hokier option: offer a feel-good Google page (greenergoogle.com?) that offers slower service by pinging fewer servers. But I can guarantee you, if less power consumption per search query means a lot worse service, users will opt for the power-hungry version.