Smartphones vs. Refrigerators: Which are the Energy Hogs?

By Jonathan Marshall

The blogosphere is abuzz with the shocking claimoriginating with coal industry consultant Mark Mills — that “when you count everything that matters, the average iPhone consumed more energy last year than a medium-sized refrigerator.” The larger point Mills was trying to make is that the digital economy consumes vast amounts of electricity, for which more coal-fired generators are needed.

Energy comparisons of refrigerators vs. computers don't account for potential energy saved from phones or computers.

One blogger for Time magazine who repeated the iPhone claim has since acknowledged that that the calculation represents a questionable, worst-case scenario. (If you want all the numbers, check here.) But why should we care which appliance uses more energy? The comparison is utterly specious.

The iPhone itself uses only trivial amounts of power over the course of a year — less than a single 100-watt light bulb consumes in one 24-hour period. To come up with his headline-grabbing comparison, Mills counted the alleged power draw of an entire chain of Internet activities that tap energy-intensive data centers and wireless networks to serve smartphone users.

Whatever the real numbers, they tell nothing about the net energy impact of smartphones and other computing devices. For example, a smartphone lets you dispense with an always-on landline phone. It lets you manage email without turning on your desktop or laptop computer. It lets you manage your bank account without driving to a bank branch. It lets you watch videos without ordering DVDs to be delivered by Netflix.

It also lets you read e-books and newspapers without anyone having to pulp millions of trees and truck paper all over the country. (In fact, it saves an estimated 98 percent of the energy required to produce and deliver a paper newspaper.)

A smartphone also helps you navigate traffic and locate empty parking spaces, saving time and gas. It helps you use car-sharing services and find local transit options so you don’t need to buy a vehicle at all. It even allows you to remotely control a thermostat in your home so you can save energy.

Your refrigerator can’t do any of that, just as your phone can’t chill beer. Why would anyone try to compare the two?

Three years ago, commenting on previous claims by Mills and others, the nationally renowned energy expert Jonathan Koomey nailed the real issue:

“For some reason, the power used by computers is a source of endless fascination to the public.  Most folks think that the power used by computers is a lot more than it actually is, and that it’s growing at incredible rates.  Neither one of these beliefs is true, but they reflect a stubborn sense that the economic importance of IT somehow must translate into a large amount of electricity use. That incorrect belief masks an important truth:  Information technology has beneficial environmental effects that vastly outweigh the direct environmental impact of the electricity that it consumes. . . .

“In my view, the really important story is that while computers use electricity, they are not a huge contributor to total electricity consumption, and while it’s a good idea to make computers energy efficient, it’s even more important to focus on the capabilities information technology (IT) enables for the broader society. Computers use a few percent of all electricity, but they can help us to use the other 95+ percent of electricity (not to mention natural gas and oil) a whole lot more efficiently.”

Email Jonathan Marshall at jonathan.marshall@pge.com.

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