A few years ago, when I began questioning what it really takes to write and publish in our digital era, I wondered about the true cost of electricity. I learned that on average, U.S. households use 1000 kiloWatt hours of power per month. We use this power to light, heat and cool our homes; to refrigerate and cook food; wash and dry laundry; keep hot water available; send emails, talk on phones, watch tv and videos, write on computers and publish online.
How much is 1000 kiloWatt hours of power? Well. The astrophysicist Adam Frank has explained that one able person can generate 24 kilowatt hours by pedaling a bike generator eight hours a day for 30 days. To generate 1000 kilowatt hours, 41 people would need to pedal eight hours a day for a month. In other words, for the average U.S. household, expecting electricity 24/7 means having the equivalent of 41 servants.1
But those 1000 kiloWatt hours do not include the energy involved in manufacturing my computer.
This matters—because 81% of the energy used by a laptop from its cradle to its grave is embodied: 81% of a laptop’s lifetime energy will be used before the end-user turns that laptop on for the first time.
One smartphone has more than 1000 substances, including plenty of rare-earth metals, each with its own energy-intensive, toxic waste-emitting, international supply chain.2
Those 1000 kiloWatt hours also do not include the energy involved in maintaining the Internet’s infrastructure. I also depend on energy-guzzling access networks—cables, satellites, routers, antennas, modems and battery backup systems—that let my computer transmit and receive data.
Those 1000 kiloWatt hours also do not include the data centers that store what I write. In 2012, Greenpeace reported that if data centers were a country, they’d rank fifth in energy use. Their electricity use grows by about 20% each year. From floor-to-ceiling, data centers are covered with servers and cooling systems that are replaced about every three years.
Those 1000 kiloWatt hours do not include discarding or recycling my devices. At the end of their usable lives, electronics get shipped to dumpsites in Africa or Asia, where they may be burned to access copper, for example. Electronic waste impacts to soil, water, air—and living creatures’ health. Electronics do not biodegrade. They are hazardous waste.
So, how much energy does it take to run the Internet (and access this article)? The late corporate anthropologist Jane Anne Morris calculated that 4.8 billion bike pedalers could generate enough power to operate the 2010 worldwide Internet with six-hour pedaling shifts. (Pedalers can look at read online while they pedal.)
Since 2010, the number of Internet users has more than doubled to 4.66 billion. So, we might need more people to keep this going.
I should note that neither Frank nor Morris calculated the energy or extractions embodied in manufacturing or discarding billions of bicycle powered-generators and batteries.
I grew up with electricity and appliances. I’ve had a computer for 35 years, Internet access for more than two decades. I do not know how to survive without these things: I depend on infrastructure and international supply chains that are unsustainable.
If my state has an electric power outage for several weeks (like Texas had last February), if our thermostats, stoves, hot water heaters, refrigerators, washing machines, phones and computers stopped working, how would my neighbors and I survive? What tools would we use?
To prepare for power outages, should we take out our grandparents’ washboards, hacksaws and canning equipment? Should we build raised beds with insulating covers and dig root sellers? Or, should we all quit motorized vehicles and start biking to school and work to get our pedaling muscles in shape?
1 Could You Power Your Home with a Bike? Adam Frank on NPR, December 8, 2016.
2 Needhidasan, S., et al., Electronic waste--an emerging threat to the environment of urban India, J. Environ Health Sci. Eng., Jan. 20, 2014.