Twitter user K_M_Anderson asked the nature_org Twitter account recently: “Love new tech but worry that servers and bandwidth are coal-powered? taking open space? any info re enviro impact? how to tech responsibly?”

Thanks for the tweet, K_M. As you now, the answers to your questions are not so simple. The fact is, it’s hard to tech responsibly because so much of the tech food chain is out of your control. But for fun, let’s do a quick analysis based on the following hypothetical:

K_M sits at a desk drinking coffee when s/he is struck by a desire to learn about the East Australian Current. S/he fires up the laptop, types “east Australian current” into Google and clicks on the Wikipedia entry for the EAC, which is the top result for the page.

Point of entry
K_M’s twitter account doesn’t tell us where s/he lives, so it’s hard to set a baseline for how ecofriendly his/her search is going to be. If you’re playing along at home, you can see how your state gets its electricity on NPR’s great “visualizing the grid” interactive map — it gives you an idea of how your electricity use will contribute to climate change.

For example, California gets less than 1 percent of its power from burning coal, while Indiana gets 94 percent of its power from coal-fired plants. Therefore, a Googler in California is doing better than his Hoosier brethren from a climate-change perspective.

While her/his state’s utility might be beyond her/his control, K_M can do a few things at home to green her/his tech:

The Google
The next step in K_M’s process is a bit harder to judge — once s/he hits “return” on that Google search, it’s virtually impossible to tell where the electrons speed off to and how they come back.

Fortunately, some eggheads at Harvard have done the research for us. According to a recent study, a Google search generates about 3.5 grams of CO2. Google disputes the claim, citing a much lower 0.2 grams of CO2.

Regardless of which number you use, I say it’s a bargain when compared to the amount of CO2 and other greenhouse gases K_M might spew driving back and forth to the library to retrieve a book whose production might create 2,500 grams of CO2. (Not to mention that the information in the book started to become obsolete the moment it was printed and will likely spawn several yearly editions.)

Add in all of Google’s ecofriendly initiatives — from trimming their lawn with goats to plowing money into green energy — and you’re looking at a pretty responsible way to do your research.

Wikimedia has two datacenters — one in Florida and one in Amsterdam. Since K_M is in the United States, we’re going to assume her/his request is sent to the Florida center — although there is no way of guaranteeing this. Florida gets 83 percent of its power from CO2-emitting fossil fuels, so serving up the EAC Wikipedia page is going to produce a few more grams of CO2 — probably more, on average than the Google search.

Still, I would maintain that storing the amount of data Wikipedia has in two datacenters that can be accessed by anyone with an Internet connection is a hell of a lot more efficient than relying on a system of libraries and hard-bound books.

K_M’s other concern is land use. After all, why should we save the Earth if it’s covered with server farms? Information on this is hard to fine, but a comprehensive (if a bit dated) article from ComputerWorld points to a fairly hefty expansion of datacenters over the next 10 years…with physical footprints for some centers stretching up to 44 acres.

Ironically, a lot of this growth is driven by a desire to have more energy efficient servers. As server technology advances, ComputerWorld reports, companies find it’s easier to simply scrap their old datacenters and start fresh with facilities designed for the new technology. It’s safe to say that as our appetite for technology increases, datacenters and infrastructure will need to grow to feed the monkey.

It should be noted however that some companies are working to solve the problem. Sun Microsystems, for example, is developing a modular datacenter, dubbed “project blackbox,” that’s stored in a shipping crate, uses little energy and can be carted form place-to-place.

Bottom line
So what should K_M do? I think the answer is to tech smart. Do what you can to reduce your energy use at home and realize there’s a lot out there that you can’t control. Our tech use is based on a network that right now is overwhelmingly powered by fossil fuels. We don’t need to stop using technology — we need to change the way the technology is powered.

K_M should also take solace in the fact that companies like Google and Sun actually care about and understand these issues as much as he does and are taking some real steps to address them.

Next question…

(Image: Dave Connell — that’s his tech.)

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