Researcher Says Google Carbon Story Is Wrong

Harvard researcher publishes work on the carbon footprint of the Web, but his work becomes a political football.

Physics researcher Alex Wissner-Gross never intended to bring so much negative attention to Google, but that's exactly what happened after the Sunday London Times published an article about his work. He said the paper got it wrong and he's keen to correct it.

The Times story said his work showed that performing two Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) searches would be the equivalent of boiling a kettle of tea. The Times came up with that analogy, appropriate for its British audience. But the numbers were way off. It claimed that a Google search generates seven grams of CO2 emissions, according to the story, while boiling tea creates 15 grams of CO2.

Wissner-Gross has calculated the CO2 emissions generated by individual users of the Internet to be about 0.02 grams of CO2 per second when viewing a simple Web page, rising to 0.2 grams per second when viewing complex Web pages or video.

"We didn't pick [Google]. This was widely misreported. Our work is about Web sites in general, not one Web site in particular," he told InternetNews.com. "Google's really the leader in this space and the largest in this space. They are also the thought leader in terms of green energy for large Internet platforms."

Wissner-Gross triple majored in physics, math and electrical engineering at MIT, the last person to do so, and graduated first in his class in 2003. He went to Harvard for his doctorate in physics, which he got in 2007. His list of awards alone is enviable.

"He's no dummy," said Don Carli, senior research fellow with The Institute for Sustainable Communication. "He can do the math and he understands IT. Just because he's set up a company to identify the problem doesn't mean he should be dismissed. If I were Google, I'd say they should engage in an informed dialogue and all will benefit."

However, the Times story traveled around the world at the speed of Digg as numerous Web sites rewrote the story and put their own spin on it. Google fired back with a response from Urs Holzle, senior vice president of operations.

"We thought it would be helpful to explain why this number is *many* times too high," Holzle wrote. After laying out how Google works, Holzle said a search requires 0.0003 kWh of energy per search, "about the same amount of energy that your body burns in ten seconds."

It also drew considerable defense of Google, perhaps the most green-minded of the Silicon Valley companies. "Why pick on Google?" asked blogger Om Malik. "I am not an expert on energy, but all I can say is, if Google is a polluter, at least it's doing something about it."

Nicholas Carr, author of "The Big Switch: Rewiring the World," said on his blog that Wissner-Gross is "an entrepreneur who has a start-up that sells a service for tracking the electricity consumption of Web sites. So he has a commercial as well as an academic interest here."

Clients are the problem

True enough, Wissner-Gross has a company called CO2Stats.com, which helps companies achieve a carbon neutral footprint for their Web site. That's his goal, to help companies reduce the CO2 generated by their servers and users.

This is done by adding some JavaScript code to the page, which measures both the server locations and where the users are coming from. Sites can then add a logo showing their overall carbon footprint, consisting of their servers, network hardware in between, and all of their visitors.

Google's datacenters are some of the most energy-efficient data centers in the world, based on what they will disclose. In his response to the story, Holzle said "in the time it takes to do a Google search, your own personal computer will use more energy than Google uses to answer your query."

Wissner-Gross agreed. "I think that's correct. That's what we see more generally with a non-Google Web site. For a Web site that gets more than 50,000 page views per month, the dominant contributor to the footprint of that Web site is on the client side."

This article was first published on InternetNews.com. To read the full article, click here.




Tags: video, Google, search, server, servers


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