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You've probably heard the nugget going around lately that using your phone to search a quick tidbit of info uses enough electricity to power two refrigerators. Okay. First things first. Every time we hear a meme like this, I feel we should be immediately skeptical. Seriously, why do we as a species spread information we have not personally checked for accuracy?! Sadly, we do, so I suspect that we are just info spreaders by evolution. Sometimes, like a garden sprinkler snick-snick-snicking needed water onto a parched lawn, we spread good information; other times we spread the greenish-brown stuff that the enormous sprinklers used to spread on the pastures near my childhood home. (NB: I grew up next to a dairy farm.)

In search of this original source, I spent the better part of an hour the other day thinking of the best five or six most effective words to type into the Searchy box. I finally found it, the original source that all the better journals were citing directly.

It's a 2013 paper put out by Mark P. Mills, CEO of something called the Digital Power Group. The paper concerns the future power requirements from mobile devices. The paper has a subtitle:

"Big Data, Big Networks, Big Infrastructure, and Big Power; an Overview of the Electricity Used by the Global Digital Ecosystem."

Browsing through, it has lots of data points I find interesting.

Okay. Can we trust this paper, or is it a bit of gobbledygook, a piece of bunkum, propaganda masquerading in a sciency lab coat? It's obvious based solely on the paper's front page. You see, I saved the stinger for last! Above that subtitle I just read you, the paper is actually called,

The Cloud Begins With Coal


Again, information found on the frickin' front cover, it is sponsored by the National Mining Association and the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity.

I'll give this paper's authors some kudos. Most gobbledygook and bunkum come from people trying to defraud, to bamboozle, to snooker, to lie in attempt to later cheat and steal. Such folks hide behind organizations that neither look nor sound like what they really are.

When you put the fact of National Mining Association sponsorship on the cover of the paper being sponsored, you are not trying to hide a damned thing. This entire paper simply makes the argument that, if our increasingly ubiquitous gadgetry continues to gobble power at the current rates, we are going to need a lot of base load power to drive that expansion.

And coal produces a lot of base load power.

As to a web search sucking power like a couple of reefers, on page 44 of this report you find end note number 1, which I quote:

"New refrigerator 350 kWh per EPA Energy Star" rating, compared to "∼700 kWh/yr weekly streaming HD…" or high definition. Got that?

So, according to this paper, the 350 kilowatt-hours consumed each year for each of two new reefers roughly equals each week watching a slightly more than 2 hour movie on your phone using the most ubiquitous streaming service available.

Bottom line: When people cite the two-fridge number, they are getting it wrong. Everyone I know who cites that number assumes the infrastructure immediately consumes that much power to get their phone that answer. This is not accurate according to the source paper. To equal two fridges cooling leftovers for a year, you must watch 52 movies on your phone.

Right away, the comparison between web searches and reefers is shot down.




That doesn't mean we're done here. Even the actual numbers cited are inaccurate, or at least misleading. You see, I left out some of the paper's detail between the reefer and the weekly hi-def streaming. Specifically, that ∼700 kWh/yr number was cobbled together by adding:

[network operations] + [network embodied energy] + [tablet embodied energy].


"Embodied energy" (also known as embedded energy) is the energy it took to build the thing that uses the power. Now, while I do see the value in including that number, I think including it in the final number is really disingenuous. When you mention what kind of mileage your car gets, you do not include the energy it takes to build a damned car. We do not stamp a light bulb with the amount of power it takes just to make it.

If we did that, judging how much power a thing consumes in the moment it consumes that power would be impossible! That's why no one does that!

Ah, but here? Here, this paper is including not just the energy it took to build the phone or tablet, but to build almost all of the infrastructure used to get information to that phone or tablet! Cell towers, servers, signal repeaters—these embodied energy numbers are all included in the paper! They are averaged out, of course. No one here is suggesting that any one person watching Game of Thrones on their phone should pay a factory's power bill just so someone else can build the cell tower that feeds the user the signal that includes Peter Dinklage petting dragons and being all witty and stuff. But still.

Even worse, this number "ignores data centers & end-use tablet charging." Which are, you know, the two amounts of energy most easily obtained!




But we still aren't done debunking. You see, as this article specifies, something is wrong with the paper. Something is very, very wrong.

The links don't work.

A savvy Internet user would infer that the blue underlined text in the footnote above is associated with web links, but when you read the PDF version of the CBC report, you find that it’s just blue…text, with no links. This presentation is misleading, and I don’t know why this footnote is formatted in this way. A researcher who wanted you to read the underlying materials would have given actual links, to make it easy on the reader. It’s possible that this is just a software glitch with whatever PDF creation software they used, but there’s no way to know without more information.


So, without checking the sourcing for the links, one cannot find the sources for the original numbers. And, as the article notes, these numbers are waaaay off. You see, this is not the first paper of its kind published by Mr. Mills.

When I heard this claim, it took me back to the year 2000, when Mark P. Mills and Peter Huber first made the claim that the networking electricity for a wireless Palm VII exceeded the electricity for running a refrigerator (1000 to 2000 kWh, they claimed, the lower bound of which was a bit higher than the average installed base for US fridges at that time). It didn’t sound plausible, and so I and some colleagues investigated, finding that Mr. Mills and Mr. Huber had overestimated the electricity needed to feed data to a wireless Palm VII by a factor of 2000 (Koomey et al. 2004).

(Emphasis in the original.)





Finally, there is one more bullshit point to note. This paper was shared by The Breakthrough Institute:

They weigh less than five ounces, but according to recent data, when you count everything that matters, the average iPhone consumed more energy last year than a medium-sized refrigerator. By the numbers, a refrigerator from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star ratings list uses about 322 kWh per year. In contrast, the average iPhone used 361 kWh of electricity when you add up its wireless connections, data usage, and battery charging.


Credit where due: the Breakthrough people actually provide a working link, which led to a correction to the original paper, 322 kWh per year, instead of Mills' 350.

As I explained in my episodes 71 and 72, however, The Breakthrough Institute is nothing more than a well-funded Distortion Factory, a scientifistic group whose sole job is to gussy up the claims of industrial activists in the name of pushing product (and, perhaps most importantly, reducing regulatory oversight). One hallmark of a Distortion Factory is to share questionable claims by repetition. For Breakthrough to cite the Digital Power Group is simply to repeat the industrial claim of coal, that coal should matter because it's big. That claim jives nicely with the Breakthrough Institute's chief claim that despite the fact that people are "a'scared" of them, nukes are good.

(Seriously, watch Michael Shellenberger's TED Talk. At the end, he uses the word "a'scared" to describe people with concerns regarding nuclear power. You know, fuck him.)

Not just that: fuck 'em all. Screw those who draw a salary pushing questionable conclusions on a public hungry for actual data.

Screw 'em hard.

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