The AtlanticThe Atlantic

The internet’s next great power suck

By Matteo Wong

23 Aug 2023 · 7 min read

informed Summary

  1. The rise of generative AI is increasing the carbon footprint of the internet due to the high energy consumption of data centers. These centers consume large amounts of electricity, often generated by fossil fuels. The AI boom could make every online action more energy-intensive, potentially pushing the web's emissions to a tipping point.

In Facebook’s youth, most of the website was powered out of a single building in Prineville, Oregon. That data center, holding row upon row of refrigerator-size racks of servers filled with rows of silicon chips, consumed huge amounts of electricity, outstripping the yearly power usage of more than 6,000 American homes. One day in the summer of 2011, as reported in The Register, a Facebook exec received an alarming call: “There’s a cloud in the data center … inside.” Following an equipment malfunction, the building had become so hot and humid from all the electricity that actual rain, from a literal cloud, briefly drenched the digital one.

Now Facebook, or rather Meta, operates well more than a dozen data centers, each much bigger and more powerful than the one in Prineville used to be. Data centers have become the backbone of the internet, running Amazon promotions, TikTok videos, Google search results, and just about everything else online. The thousands of these buildings across the world run on a shocking amount of electricity—akin to the power usage of England—that is in part, if not mostly, generated by fossil fuels. While the internet accounts for just a sliver of global emissions, 4 percent at most, its footprint has steadily grown as more people have connected to the web and as the web itself has become more complex: streaming, social-media feeds, targeted ads, and more.

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