The cloud and online data storage has slowly crept into our lives. It has been incorporated so seamlessly that we often just accept the ease, and don't look any further. After all, most of the time it's free right? Luckily many of us already know this is not the entire truth. There's no such thing as free in the online world, you pay either with your privacy or in some cases the price is hidden in something else.

One of these costs is not directly translatable to money: the environmental impact

It has been estimated that storing 1 gigabyte of data costs around 3 to 7 kWh of energy. To put this into perspective, a modern fridge uses around 200 KWh of energy per year. This might not seem like much at first, but we're talking about a mere gigabyte of data here. That gigabyte is often backed up in a couple of places for faster access and to prevent data loss. So you could say 1 measel gigabyte of data is already worth 4 to 8.*

And then we're still talking about the storage of around one holiday worth of photos. A single person easily has stored between 10 and 100 GB of data online.

This translates to between 40 and 800 gigabytes of data, taking the redundancy into account. In the best case scenario this means around 120 Kwh, in the worst case however it’s a staggering 6400 Kwh (or 6.4 Mwh of power). That’s the full electricity consumption of 2 entire households in a year's time!

No that’s not a typo. In a single year the power consumption of a single cloud user can be anywhere between 120Kwh and 6400Kwh. That’s the equivalent of between 0.5 and 32 extra fridges running in your home.

These figures are nothing new

It might seem shocking, but these figures bring nothing new to the table. We've known about this problem for many years. In 2018 for instance the music video Despacito celebrated being the first youtube video to hit more than 5 billion views. It has been calculated that in reaching that goal it used around as much energy as 40.000 households. Of course this is mostly due to bandwidth usage, not the online storage alone per se. Yet it's another example showing how easy it is to forget the impact of something as small as a single youtube video.

This is a serious problem. Many data centers claim they run on fully renewable power sources, but in practice that’s not the case. They buy renewable energy certificates as to mask their CO2 emissions, but most of the electrical energy used is still produced by burning fossil fuels

Is there a solution to this?

Yes, and it’s actually quite simple. Just don’t store everything online. Turn off the automatic cloud syncing on your mobile phone,and make local backups of your data. The difference is that your devices aren’t always on 24/7 and generally have a lot less overhead than a full fledged server.

Sources

Carbon and the cloud - stanfordmag.org
Cisco Annual Internet Report - cisco.com
The Megawatts behind Your Megabytes - aceee.org

* This is an estimate based on personal experiences working in web development