Sat. Jan 21st, 2023

Environmental impacts

Electricity consumption and its environmental impact

Nothing sums up the environmental impact of the energy requirements of computing quite like cryptocurrency.

Electricity needed to mine bitcoin is more than used by ‘entire countries’ | Bitcoin | The Guardian

Whilst just a single example, it has been calculated that BitCoin consumes more energy than entire countries – and this is for a fringe currency that has not faced mass adoption. There is a limit to the amount of renewable energy that can be generated at the current time, and therefore it is inevitable that some of the energy consumed is sourced from polluting methods of production.

One way to address this is through careful positioning of energy-demanding systems: for instance, placing data centres in locations where there is an abundance of sunlight, or natural cooling available.

Balancing improvements in efficiency and hardware use

There are two ways to reduce the environmental impact of computer processing, asides from sourcing energy from non-polluting suppliers.

  • You can improve the efficiency of the hardware – this means increasing the number of calculations completed per unit of energy (e.g. calculations per W)
  • Make greater use of hardware over software – general purpose computing devices are great because they offer huge flexibility in terms of what tasks they can complete. However, this comes with an increased power requirement. Custom designed hardware can achieve far higher efficiency but obviously comes with the limitation that it is only suited for specific purposes.

Electronic waste and recycling

Computer equipment consumes rare-earth materials, as well as containing many toxic chemicals (for example, fire retardation).

Electronic waste can not always be sent to landfill due to the contents. Older equipment used to contain mercury, which could leach into soil and waterways. Electronic waste can also be bulky, and upgrade cycles generate huge volumes of waste, which has to be disposed of within existing landfill sites.

Companies are starting to move towards more sustainable methods of manufacture, including recycling these rare-earth materials.

Many components can be recycled: the chassis of many systems contain steel, aluminium or plastic, all of which can be recycled. Batteries contain large amounts of Lithium, a relatively rare material which is in great demand – think electric car batteries and energy storage (for surplus wind or solar energy, so that it can be used when needed).

A related issue is the disposal of old electronic equipment to other countries for reuse or recycling. In many instances, this is dressed up as ‘helping’ other, less fortunate countries, however there is a real danger that this is being used to simply shift pollution from one country to another, poorer one.