Will Our Plugged-in Planet Have a Green or Black Future?

KeyboardsChances are the Internet has changed something about your life. How you shop. How you stay in touch with school buddies or look for a job.

But has it made you greener? And will using the Internet more change your wear and tear on the planet?

The short answer is that the Internet could save energy, if not necessarily Mother Earth.

The more interesting answer comes in a longer conversation short on absolutes and peppered with unintended consequences.

In Kansas City, perhaps as much as anywhere in America, that discussion could become ever more profound. If Google Inc. succeeds with plans to blanket the market in lightning-fast Internet hookups ? its service will make its debut in some neighborhoods this year ? the change could be transformational.

We?ll have access at home to Internet fast enough to download the city library?s entire collection every minute. Speeds like that, Google hopes, will mean that we use the Internet more and in so-far-unimagined ways.

Some of that use could help us cut back on energy consumption, though some will surely add to our demand. The results will vary and often defy calculation.

?We don?t see the Internet as some silver bullet, but it will help cut energy use,? said Rob Atkinson, the executive director of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. ?It can make a difference. It?s just not always clear in what ways.?

Let?s imagine you?ve got an office job. You drive 10 miles to work and 10 miles back. Now let?s outfit your house with Google?s promise of 1-gigabit-per-second Internet speed ? bandwidth to burn.

Suddenly you tap not only into email but also your employer?s electronic nerve center. With a far faster Internet, you can have constant high-definition live video feeds with a dozen co-workers constantly. Crystal-clear audio and video without a hint of delay. We?ve just eliminated all that gasoline burned on your daily commute.

But wait. You?re going to have the furnace or air conditioner in your home running more during the day. Your lights will be on. Unless your company has loads of teleworkers, there?s probably no energy savings at the office from having you at home. Instead of stopping at the gym on your way to work in the morning and the grocery store on your way home, you make special trips.

Still, on average, at least one study suggests, only 15 percent of the energy savings we make from eliminating your drive is wiped out by the new household energy costs.

The potential factors that affect how much energy the Internet will save can feel endless, fed into the part-art, part-science craft of calculating carbon life cycle assessments.

Our calculations shift depending how far out in the suburbs you live and whether you drive a Suburban or a scooter, or hop onto a bus.

?There?s no ready answer,? said Kirk Cameron, a computer scientist at Virginia Tech University. ?It ultimately depends on how you use the tools.?

What the early research shows often challenges conventional wisdom and offers clues to how an increasingly complex society needs to juggle often conflicting and confounding do-good intentions.

Various studies suggest that online shopping ? while certainly bad news for the local mom-and-pop store ? can cut carbon emissions. But the results depend on how much online shopping comparisons might replace driving to several stores, whether a shopper?s car trip includes multiple or single purchases on an outing, and how close the shopper lives to stores.

?So often when you get into these discussions, there?s so many times you say, ?It depends if ? ? ? said Jennifer Mankoff, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University.

In 2008, she published the article ?Some Computer Science Issues in Creating a Sustainable World? about the changes driven by computers and the Internet. On one hand, Mankoff acknowledged the ways digital technology could be a powerful tool toward energy efficiency. One group of climate scientists estimated in 2008 that by substituting real-world energy choices with virtual activity, the Internet could cut global greenhouse emissions 15 percent by 2020.

Mankoff warned, though, that the way the digital age cranks up electronics for constant data swapping threatens that calculus. Computers, smartphones, iPods, Kindles and the rest of the fast-growing array of gadgets pose their own environmental cost.

They suck down electricity ? albeit with improving efficiency ? almost without pause. Their manufacture requires significant energy. And they are made of a sometimes-toxic brew of chemicals and rare metals.

Already the information technology industry accounts for about 2 percent of the planet?s carbon emissions. Much of that is consumed in cloud computing, online data storage and processing. That rivals the emissions of worldwide air travel.

Look at online games that allow a computer mouse or Xbox controller to steer avatars in hunts for virtual bad guys or to collect powers for pretend wizards. With Google Fiber connections, Kansas City could become game player heaven. Kansas Citians will have connections far faster than their competitors. Any latency between your thumbs and your characters? movements will all but disappear.

That, though, takes electricity. A computer can consume almost double the normal electricity during such games, even as a remote server in some distant data center is gobbling down watts at roughly the same rate. In just a few hours of game playing, you can exceed the daily per capita electrical consumption for half the countries in the world.

?It?s not zero. Everything you do has an impact,? said Neal Elliott of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

Yet those humming cloud computing servers that allow the dwarf controlled by a guy in Connecticut to flirt with the princess controlled by a guy in Nevada also feel the tug of a powerful economic force. Whether it?s ?Combat Arms? or ?World of Warcraft,? Amazon or Google, the companies that operate data centers face strong incentives to save energy. Electricity ranks at or near the top of the costs for running the cloud.

What?s more, Elliott sees that cloud as a critical tool for lowering our costs of running a bricks-and-mortar world. Technology exists today with the promise of bringing ?Jetsons?-age smarts to a system that could determine what we produce, where we make it and when we need it.

Imagine a significant number of people in a city with Internet-tethered monitors in their refrigerators and tiny radio chips on milk, butter and cheese packages. Those refrigerators could feed data to regional dairies. Those dairies, in turn, could far better anticipate demand. That could signal whether to send delivery trucks to one grocery store or another and what best to stock in them. It might even offer clues about when to vary the diets of milking cows.

Food exceeds all other sectors for consuming energy. And spoilage, whether in the supply chain or your kitchen, wastes 40 percent.

?You could have just the right amount of food showing up in just the right place at just the right time,? Elliott said.

Consider a much-networked system wired over the Internet into a community?s thermostats. It could do more than rest home furnaces during the workday. It might factor in real-time weather forecasts.

Better yet, it could match those needs with demands of the power grid, coordinating hundreds of thousands of houses so a utility could minimize peak power demands ? a difference that might mean less power drawn from coal-burning plants and more taken from wind farms.

Whether it?s telecommuting or thermostat crowd sourcing, some see the changes as inevitable.

?Whether it happens now or happens in 20 years, it?s going to happen because oil will just become too expensive,? said Matt Bauer, president and co-founder of BetterWorld Telecom, an Internet and phone service provider marketed as socially responsible.