Should We Be Worried About the Energy Costs of Our New Remote Work Lifestyle?

3 min read
Mar 19, 2020
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Nine hours of work on my laptop. Three half-hour video meetings. Two episodes of a trashy Netflix show to wind down. 

I keep hearing that remote work is more energy-efficient, but it doesn't feel that way.

The exact energy cost of the internet is a matter of hot debate. Last July, a French think tank concluded that watching 30 minutes of Netflix was equivalent to driving four miles (6.4 km) in terms of carbon dioxide emissions. The goal of the think tank, called The Shift Project, is to transition away from large sources of pollution. Some of its conclusions and assumptions have spread around the web, leading to a general feeling that all this internet stuff uses way more energy than we thought.

Let's say I decide that the best cure for social distancing is a Game of Thrones binge – all eight seasons. That's about 73 hours of streaming, which would equal 584 miles of driving, according to the estimates from The Shift Project. The average American commutes about 30 miles each day. So my binge would add up to almost a month of driving back and forth to work. Watching Game of Thrones is depressing enough without that on my mind.

Whether you're worried about the environmental implications or your energy bill, it turns out to be devilishly hard to get straight answers. It's easy to calculate how much energy just your computer or smartphone are using, but what about the cost of sending data to your phone or to your wifi network? Anything you do on the internet requires getting data from at least one data center and probably many simultaneously. How much energy does each data center use?

Luckily, an analyst at the International Energy Agency (IEA) recently published a clear breakdown of streaming video energy use. He estimates the carbon emissions to be 30 times less than reported by The Shift Project last year. The energy use would also be many times less. The debate is ongoing, but it appears the estimates from The Shift Project are on the high side.

The biggest factor in energy use is what kind of device we use and how much data we're pulling from the web. Data centers are surprisingly efficient, even if warehouses full of servers with blinking lights don’t bring to mind energy efficiency. They are getting more efficient every year, although there is still a lot of work to be done, especially as internet traffic is rising exponentially.

So what does this say about the energy efficiency of remote work? Video conferencing probably uses more energy than streaming, because it is essentially several streaming videos running simultaneously. General internet surfing usually uses less energy than streaming, but this also depends on what you're doing. But you'd be surfing the net in the office anyhow. The additional energy from remote work is more from extra video calls than it is from increased internet usage. 

Rest assured, the energy costs of remote work are probably less than that of even a short car commute. They are drastically less than that of flying to another country for an in-person meeting.

There’s maybe even some energy left over for a couple episodes of that trashy Netflix show. Treat yourself. But maybe curl up in bed with your laptop instead of turning on that huge TV? It’ll be better for the environment and lower your energy bill. Save that wide-screen TV for your post-coronavirus party.

Read the The Shift Project report here.

Read the analysis by IEA analyst George Kamiya here (a guest post for Carbon Brief).

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