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Researcher Says Google Carbon Story Is Wrong

Physics researcher Alex Wissner-Gross never intended to bring so much negative attention to Google, but that's exactly what happened after the Sunday London Times published an article about his work. He said the paper got it wrong and he's keen to correct it.

The Times story said his work showed that performing two Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) searches would be the equivalent of boiling a kettle of tea. The Times came up with that analogy, appropriate for its British audience. But the numbers were way off. It claimed that a Google search generates seven grams of CO2 emissions, according to the story, while boiling tea creates 15 grams of CO2.

Wissner-Gross has calculated the CO2 emissions generated by individual users of the Internet to be about 0.02 grams of CO2 per second when viewing a simple Web page, rising to 0.2 grams per second when viewing complex Web pages or video.

"We didn't pick [Google]. This was widely misreported. Our work is about Web sites in general, not one Web site in particular," he told InternetNews.com. "Google's really the leader in this space and the largest in this space. They are also the thought leader in terms of green energy for large Internet platforms."

Wissner-Gross triple majored in physics, math and electrical engineering at MIT, the last person to do so, and graduated first in his class in 2003. He went to Harvard for his doctorate in physics, which he got in 2007. His list of awards alone is enviable.

"He's no dummy," said Don Carli, senior research fellow with The Institute for Sustainable Communication. "He can do the math and he understands IT. Just because he's set up a company to identify the problem doesn't mean he should be dismissed. If I were Google, I'd say they should engage in an informed dialogue and all will benefit."

However, the Times story traveled around the world at the speed of Digg as numerous Web sites rewrote the story and put their own spin on it. Google fired back with a response from Urs Holzle, senior vice president of operations.

"We thought it would be helpful to explain why this number is *many* times too high," Holzle wrote. After laying out how Google works, Holzle said a search requires 0.0003 kWh of energy per search, "about the same amount of energy that your body burns in ten seconds."

It also drew considerable defense of Google, perhaps the most green-minded of the Silicon Valley companies. "Why pick on Google?" asked blogger Om Malik. "I am not an expert on energy, but all I can say is, if Google is a polluter, at least it's doing something about it."

Nicholas Carr, author of "The Big Switch: Rewiring the World," said on his blog that Wissner-Gross is "an entrepreneur who has a start-up that sells a service for tracking the electricity consumption of Web sites. So he has a commercial as well as an academic interest here."

Clients are the problem

True enough, Wissner-Gross has a company called CO2Stats.com, which helps companies achieve a carbon neutral footprint for their Web site. That's his goal, to help companies reduce the CO2 generated by their servers and users.

This is done by adding some JavaScript code to the page, which measures both the server locations and where the users are coming from. Sites can then add a logo showing their overall carbon footprint, consisting of their servers, network hardware in between, and all of their visitors.

Google's datacenters are some of the most energy-efficient data centers in the world, based on what they will disclose. In his response to the story, Holzle said "in the time it takes to do a Google search, your own personal computer will use more energy than Google uses to answer your query."

Wissner-Gross agreed. "I think that's correct. That's what we see more generally with a non-Google Web site. For a Web site that gets more than 50,000 page views per month, the dominant contributor to the footprint of that Web site is on the client side."

CO2Stats.com's own stats appear to bear this out. Its servers generate 0.0482 kilograms, or 1.7 ounces of CO2, network hardware 91.1249 kilograms, or 200 pounds of CO2 while the client computers of all the people visiting the site generate 123.0586 kilograms, or 271.3 pounds of CO2.

This measurement is done through the company's database and software of datacenter locations, computer hardware and other elements. A client or server based in West Virginia would likely be using coal-fired energy, whereas a client or server in France would likely have nuclear power behind it. All of this weighs in to the calculus of the CO2 footprint.

Reducing your footprint

Companies wishing to reduce their footprint should think seriously about the energy efficiency of their Web site, he said. Sites need to be encoded better, JavaScript needs to be compressed and rich media, like video and photos, also need improved compression.

"Increasing the energy efficiency of a Web site through efficient encoding is the simplest and easiest thing Web sites can do," said Wissner-Gross. "It's basic site optimization. That's the first step everyone should take. It has the side benefit of making your site faster loading, and visitors tend to be happier when sites load faster."

The second thing that CO2Stats does is automatically subsidize appropriate amounts of renewable energy to compensate and neutralize the CO2 that can't be squeezed out. So if a site is measured to generate 100 kilowatt hours of power, CO2Stats buys 100 kWh from wind farms.

The caveat is this is only done for the servers. There's no way they could afford it for the clients, where most of the expense lies. "For the carbon footprints of Web sites, [we can do it], but in the long term there will probably be a need for government assistance for wind farms," said Wissner-Gross.

Wissner-Gross said he is in the process of preparing a manuscript on his work. The Times erroneously said he had submitted it to the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). "At this point, we haven't decided where the manuscript will ultimately go, and it's already out there in commercial form in the incarnation of CO2stats," he said.

So where does the 27-year-old go from here? "My long term goal since high school has been to make the planet programmable," he said. He worked on nano-technology for his PhD work, where he showed how to take nanowire interconnects and use them to rewire circuits automatically.

Getting more sites to monitor their carbon footprint is the short term goal, followed by making power more readily accessible and movable around the world in the long term.

He also might add correcting a few errant tech publications to his list.