Jonathan Koomey: Separating Fact From Fiction: A Challenge For The Media

InsightaaS: Many longer-time readers are aware that in addition to the material published on this site, the team publishes in other venues — including as the Sustainable IT columnists for Bloomberg BNA. In our research, consulting and publishing on sustainable IT, we have frequently relied on the insightful work of Jonathan Koomey, Consulting Professor at Stanford University, to understand issues in and implications of energy usage in the data centre.

As might be expected from his position (and as we can confirm from our own interactions with him) Koomey is a thoughtful observer not just of power and environmental trends but of the facts – and in some cases, the “facts” – around them. In this post from Koomey’s blog,(abridged and re-edited from an earlier article published in IEEE Consumer Electronics Magazine) he looks at some recent misinformation around the power used by iPhones – not, as the coal industry would have you believe, equivalent to two refrigerators! – and uses this specific incident to discuss four reasons for media attention allocated to discredited sources: newness, profit, the “romance with contrarians” and “the quest for ‘balance'”.

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

—Josh Billings

One of the less endearing features of the information age is the endless proliferation of attention-getting “factoids” that “just ain’t so.”  Take, for example, the amount of electricity associated with accessing the Internet through your smart phone.  A recent coal industry-funded study [1] claimed that the iPhone uses as much electricity as two refrigerators when you count the energy needed to make it, run it and power the “behind-the-wall” equipment to deliver data to the device.  Discussion of the original report (The Cloud Begins with Coal, hereafter CBC, written by Mark P. Mills) showed up on the Breakthrough Institute web site, Time Magazine Online, MSN News, the Huffington Post, MarketWatch, and Grist, among others (with most focusing on the comparison between a smart phone and one refrigerator [2]).

When I heard this claim, it took me back to the year 2000, when Mr. Mills and Peter Huber first made the claim [3] that the networking electricity for a wireless Palm VII exceeded the electricity for running a refrigerator. This claim, and the related ones about the total electricity used by computing and communications, turned out to be bunk, with the electricity used by a wireless Palm VII overestimated by a factor of 2000…

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