Eco-investigator and New Jersey native, Alissa MacMillan, seeks to find answers to your everyday questions about tough decisions we all face, when acting in the best interests for the environment. A freelance writer and philosophy lecturer, Alissa is a former features reporter for the New York Daily News and has been living in County Limerick for nearly eight years. Your queries on all matters environmental, are welcome.
This week, Alissa focuses on ‘Click Concerns’.
Q: Sitting in front of my computer, I sometimes find myself scrolling along the avenues of Copenhagen or touring Tokyo through google street view. It occurred to me that this might take a lot of energy, but I’m not even sure how or why. Are there better or worse ways to be using my devices?
A: Meandering through the streets of a foreign city from your kitchen table is one of the more impressive features of google maps, I grant you that. But when it comes to your browsing habits, there are ways of using lots of energy and ways of conserving. As Dr. Vincent Emeakaroha, a computer science lecturer at Munster Technological University, explains, quickly checking an address on google is one thing, setting off on the street view tour is quite another.
It takes a significant amount of data to generate the images on street view, Dr. Emeakaroha says, and the more data it uses, the more CPU-intensive it is, which means it requires more power. If you’re on street view for too long, you might notice your device getting hot, he says. This is a sign that it’s trying on the system.
But it turns out that a bit of travel isn’t so bad, because some of the real energy-sappers are the programs and apps we’re not using.
When it comes to computers and monitors, “idle time consumes about 50% of the energy,” Dr. Emeakaroha notes, nearing 60% for idle apps. “If the app is still active in the background,” he says, it’s continuing to process data and use energy. You might not see your whatsapp, facebook, and twitter feeds, but if they haven’t been shut down completely and you’re still connected to the network, new videos and messages are being processed.
It’s a similar story for your computer: when you have multiple tabs open, these each consume energy, with browsers like Chrome or Firefox opening new tabs in what Dr. Emeakaroha calls a “sandbox,” or a way of keeping tabs in their own independent environments. It’s an innovation to keep the computer safe from malware attacks but it does mean that opening each tab starts up a new process.
Also worth noting, the Fortnite addictions and Netflix binges are bad, but they aren’t the worst. Social media and web browsing are the top two energy-consuming applications on phones and laptops now, using four times as much energy as gaming or watching videos, says Dr. Emeakaroha.
We again get a clue to this with battery usage – the battery will run down quickly when the device has to work harder.
“If you are in a location where your phone is struggling to get a signal,” Dr. Emeakaroha adds, “that quickly runs down your battery.” The same when your phone is open to connect to any network – the search itself requires work, processing, on the part of your device. The batteries of those old, call-and-text-only, not-so-smart phones, can last for a week or more because no apps are running in the background and a wi-fi connection isn’t a concern – networking, which uses the most energy, isn’t happening.
All of those clicks are also keeping data centres whirring, the subject of debate in Ireland at the moment, and the more we browse, the more we’re utilizing that energy source.
So a brief online tour of Tokyo is fine, but, just like the lights, shutting down apps and tabs when you’re not using them, and even getting off the grid for a spell, can save your battery and cut your energy use by half.