Websites are getting faster, fatter, and… more polluting. Solar Low-Tech Magazine's solar-powered, low-carbon website is a compelling demonstration of the power that web design has to help the planet.
Many pundits in recent weeks have suggested that a longer term move towards digital communication may be the silver lining of the Corona pandemic. The hope is that more economic activity will move online, reducing carbon emissions by saving on flights and other unnecessary travel.
Unfortunately it is not so simple - because the internet, and the infrastructure that surrounds it, has a much bigger and dirtier climate impact than many of us realise. Digital technology accounts for nearly 4% of global carbon emissions (outstripping the aviation industry, even before the lock-downs). With more and more people getting online and increasing amounts of data flying between smartphones, tablets and internet-connected devices, this figure is set to double to 8% by 2025. In the same timeframe, the information and communications technology industry is set to consume up to 20% of all of the world’s electricity.
Why is this? It has a number of causes: from the huge amounts of energy required to build microchips, to the short life span of products (exacerbated by planned obsolescence), to the shockingly low recycling rates for electronic goods. Much of the electricity required for ICT, however, is not consumed by the devices themselves, but in running and maintaining the physical infrastructure that underpins the internet. Every single action taken online is sent through vast and complex, resource-heavy networks to servers, which store and retrieve information. These gigantic “server-farms” require huge amounts of power to manufacture, run and keep from overheating. More on the impact of the environmental impact of the online world can be found here.
Surely the answer is simply to power the internet using renewable energy? Indeed, several web-hosting platforms such as Windcloud and Hetzner already profess to do so, and Google last year invested a record-breaking amount in renewable energy (although its operations remain a long way off from running on 100% renewable power). The problem is that the internet already uses approximately three times more energy than the entire current capacity of wind and solar globally, and digital energy consumption is growing at a faster rate than renewable electricity generation. Moreover, because we want the internet to stay on all the time, until we have effective solutions for storing renewable energy, we will have to back it up with more reliable fuels due to the intermittency of renewable energy sources (there is no power when the wind doesn't blow and the sun doesn't shine); meaning that even if the share of electricity generated by renewables increased, the growth of digital energy consumption would most likely still necessitate burning ever-more fossil fuels. (Some innovative solutions for storing energy can be found here, here, and here, but they will need more time and investment before we will know if they are workable at scale).
Recognising these problems, Kris de Decker at Low-Tech Magazine decided to build a light-weight, 100% solar powered website. Unlike other solar-powered websites, it is not backed up using the grid or other energy sources, and so when the sun doesn't shine for an extended period, it simply goes offline.
© Solar Low-Tech Magazine Low-Tech Magazine’s radically sustainable sister site is solar powered, so it drops offline in cloudy weather.
Rather than being merely an annoying side-effect of the project, it's “quite crucial” that it does so, he told me, “because that's actually one of the important messages here.” “The shops are not always open. Why should a website be always available?” He explained that one of the main reasons why the energy use of the internet is growing so quickly is because of the expectation that we should be able to access anything at any time. This expectation is also, lest we forget, a very recent one. “Ten years ago you were only online when you were sitting at your desk. Since the coming of smartphones and wireless internet people are constantly connected. And that's a problem for energy-use, but it also has a lot of social and psychological consequences.”
Accepting that the site will sometimes go offline helps save resources. Staying online during a spell of bad weather would mean using a much bigger battery than he uses now, “which would have to be replaced every three or four years – and that's a lot of resources, a lot of energy, and mining, and all the environmental and social consequences that go together with that.”
I pressed him as to whether this model could, or should, really be applied across the wider internet – what about essential services? “There are exceptions, sure, but for the majority of things, it wouldn't be a problem. If you look at the data traffic from the internet, it's 80% videos. Many of them are cat videos and other silly things. If they would go offline because of bad weather, no one would get hurt.”
Yet, in his opinion, the fact that it is solar-powered is not the most important aspect of the site. More important is its light-weight design. Images and video are the most data-heavy (and thus energy-intensive) elements of the internet, and these have been contributing to a “fattening” of web pages - the average size of which increased more than threefold between 2011-2017. There are no videos on the solar website, and the images are all grey-scale, and compressed using a technique called dithering. Moreover the site is static, which means that it exists as a simple set of documents on the server's hard-disc. Most websites these days are dynamic, which require recurrent updates when pages are visited. More details about how to design a low-tech website can be found here and here.
“People don't think about energy-use when they build a website. Before I built this one, I was not an exception. When I uploaded an image on my old site for example, there was nothing which told me about how heavy it was. Web platforms don't encourage people to think about it. It's important that this changes.” Even if your server is powered by renewable energy, but energy consumption stays at a high level, “then you're not really changing anything,” he contends, “it's really important to downsize the infrastructure.”
Competition has incentivised digital companies to constantly strive to improve user-convenience at any cost; and energy efficiency gains are being cancelled out by ever-shifting performance benchmarks and consumer expectations. Thus we will sleep-walk into an ever-more digitised future with a growing per-user energy consumption unless deliberate actions are taken to realign priorities. It's important to remember, says Kris, that “the internet is not an autonomous being. Its growing energy use is the consequence of actual decisions made by software developers, web designers, marketing departments, publishers and internet users.... With a lightweight, off-the-grid solar-powered website, we want to show that other decisions can be made.”
If there is one thing that the Corona pandemic has shown us, it's that governments have the power to act in decisive ways for the common good, and are not powerless bystanders in the face of inexorable market forces. Smart governmental interventions - such as the EU’s recent call for Netflix, Youtube, and others to reduce the bit-rate of their videos in order to maintain the functionality of the internet - can provide effective parameters for digital companies. Future bold moves from governments could reorientate the trajectory of market competition away from current data-heavy priorities, making it easier for developers, designers, marketers and publishers to re-design the internet in a more sustainable way.
A sustainable internet is well within our grasp technologically. It is only lack of awareness and willpower that stands in the way.