Computation may be the first energy using technology where there is no natural limit on how much people will use. E.g., consider cars - I might want a giant SUV, but I don't want one 10 times bigger than that. There's a practical limit here. But in computation? Why wouldn't I want a massive supercomputer at my beck and call 24/7? If it makes my life a little more convenient then why not? It's not like I have to haul it around with me or park it, and it can be literally anywhere in the world and I don't care. Now, in the era of big internet search engines, a huge number of computers are at my beck and call any time I want. I type a query in the box and perhaps thousands of computers jump in a data center somewhere. Also, many computers have been scouring the internet preparing the data they are jumping to send back to me when I query them.
These computers and the energy they consume weren't there a few short years ago. Now they're turned on and busy processing the queries we all throw at them. So, my personal energy consumption due to this computation has gone up quite a bit. There's a carbon footprint here. Normally we don't think about the energy consumption of these computers. What is the carbon footprint of my internet searching anyway?
Well, let's say the thousands of computers that jump when I query the internet are racked up. A standard computer rack can hold from 20 to 80 computers depending on model, and can consume 20Kwatts of power. Cooling eats up another 50% of that power, so 30Kwatts total per rack. When I say thousands of computers jump for me, that means order hundreds of racks. So let's say 100 racks of computers at 30Kwatts per rack.
That's 3+ Megawatts.
Just how much energy is that? Is that a lot? It sounds like a lot.
Well most people drive cars and understand energy in terms of gallons of gasoline....so let's convert 3 megawatts into gallons of gasoline burned efficiently, per unit of time. I drive an efficient car (not the mega SUV I mentioned above), so I use up about 10 gallons of gas a week. I use my favorite internet search engine, perhaps 10 times a day. Let's say my queries take 1 second each for the thousands of computers that jump whenever I search. So that's 10 x 7 days x 1 seconds = 70 seconds. So 70 seconds of 3Megawatts is 210 Megawatt seconds. A gallon of gas contains roughly 35 kilowatt hours of energy which is 126,000 kilowatt seconds, or 126 megawatt seconds. So my google searches for a week burn up about 1.666 gallons of gas a week. This is about 1/6 of my regular fuel consumption per week.
Furthermore, it costs, at the current $4/gallon, around $6.40.
Now, the above estimates of compute time are probably overly generous. I just did a google search, and they say it took 0.32 seconds to execute, quite a bit less than my estimate of 1 second above. Also, I don't know if that's the total computation time, or the parallel computation time on some huge cluster of computers. If it's just one computer spending that 0.32 seconds, then the energy is of course much less.
But that's beside the point. I want really high quality information available at my fingertips. If thousands of computers did have to jump to get it for me at my every whim, then I don't really care.... there's no natural limit to what I want here. It' s not like driving a giant SUV where a much bigger one wouldn't be interesting. Why would I care how big the computer that serves me has to be. It's not like it has to fit in my house.
That is, until the price tag for the energy comes into play. And the carbon footprint of that energy if it comes from fossil fuel.