How energy intensive is a Google search?

Published: 15th Aug 2019

In brief

Claim

It is estimated that a single Google search could power a low-energy light bulb for an hour.

Conclusion

Google’s own estimate which is a decade old shows that the energy required to power a Google search could power a low energy (10 watt) light bulb for 108 seconds. Each search will vary slightly and Google searches may have become more efficient in the last decade.

“It is estimated that a single Google search could power a low-energy light bulb for an hour.”

Rod Liddle, 4 August 2019

Sunday Times columnist Rod Liddle claimed that a single Google search uses enough energy to power a low-energy lightbulb for an hour.

This looks like an overestimate. We don’t know exactly where Mr Liddle’s claim originates from, but back in 2009 the Sunday Times ran a similar story overstating the energy consumption of a typical Google search.  

Low-energy LED lightbulbs vary in power requirements but a low-energy replacement for an old fashioned 60W bulb will require about 10 watts. That means it will use 10 watt-hours (Wh) of energy each hour.  

By comparison, in 2009 Google estimated that a typical search required 0.3 Wh of energy. We don’t have any more recent data on this, and Google told us that since then it has made its data centres more energy efficient.

We also spoke to Yannick Oswald, a PhD researcher in energy footprints at the University of Leeds who told us that if the energy consumption of a Google search has changed since 2009, it’s most likely to have decreased due to improvements in energy efficiency.

Nevertheless, even using Google’s 2009 estimate of a search requiring 0.3 Wh, Mr Liddle’s estimate is far too high. The energy required to power a Google search could power a 10 watt bulb for around 108 seconds, not an hour. That’s 33 times less energy than Mr Liddle’s estimate.

This area is super complicated

The energy needed to conduct a Google search can vary considerably. It depends on factors including the local efficiency of the internet, efficiency of electricity infrastructure and the distance and time it takes for signals to travel.

So that (old) 0.3Wh estimate masks the possibility that some Google searches may have required more energy to process.

Also that figure doesn’t take into account the base energy consumption of your computer or smartphone, or the energy consumption required to make your device and build the necessary digital infrastructure.

Similarly, the energy consumption of a low energy lightbulb as calculated above doesn’t take into account the base energy required to produce the lightbulb itself or any of the infrastructure required to power it.

Google’s matches its energy consumption with renewable energy purchases

Mr Liddle was making a point about the link between using Google and climate change.

So it’s also worth noting that Google matches the energy it uses in its data centres and offices by purchasing an equivalent amount of renewable energy to achieve what they describe as “net zero operational carbon emissions”.

However this doesn’t account for any energy that is consumed by personal computers or devices doing searches.

Full disclosure: Full Fact has received funding from Google and Google.org, Google’s charitable foundation. We disclose all funding we receive over £5,000; you can see these figures here. Our funders have no input into our editorial content.

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