It is easy to see how much data the apps on your mobile devices use. We have all been surprised by those extra GB charges from our telecommunications carrier or the painful bill we must pay when we forget to use WiFi on a trip abroad. What is not so apparent is how much energy those same apps that drain your data plan consume. Power for our connected lives come in two forms: the mighty lithium batteries inside our devices and the servers that handle the data required to run the mobile apps. The truth is, our mobile lives, powered by our smart devices, require electric power…lots of it.
The rare energy-hungry pastime that doesn’t trigger remote servers to function.
This week’s post briefly explores these two engines of mobile power. It also reveals how your latest tweet comes with a chunk of carbon emissions that impact the quality of life and the sustainability of our economic activity, and how emerging technologies will soon make it possible to tweet without guilt.
Innovation in Energy Enabled our Mobile Life
The hero who made our mobile lives possible rests quietly inside our devices. It was the battery that made us the always-connected, on-the-go mobile users we are today. Without that small, featureless, unassuming power source that we all take for granted, your mighty mobile devices would not exist. It took nearly 90-years of incremental technological development to enable us to pack enough energy into a device that can fit in your pocket and last a decent amount of time while you are on the go.
Innovation in storing energy has revolutionized our lives. It took many decades of painstaking experimentation and research to find the perfect way to pack so much energy into the small and compact space of your cell phone battery. During this time, many of the parts in your mobile device were ready, waiting only for a battery capable of bringing about the smartphone revolution. The first person to develop lithium batteries was G.N. Lewis in 1912. It took 60-years to bring the first ones to the market and 20 more years (well into the 1990s) to make them compact enough to power a mobile device.
Invisible Chains of Power
When you plug in your mobile device to charge, you trigger a huge invisible chain that goes from your plug to the electricity grid that feeds your home and place of work, all the way to the coal plants, solar, and wind farms that produce that electricity. Yet, the actual amount of energy your mobile device consumes is quite low. Our devices are amazingly efficient at using energy. For perspective, the typical mobile phone uses 2- to 6-watts when charging, at an energy cost of less than a dollar for a full year. For all the efficiency of our connected devices, it is the sum total of our mobile devices that poses stress to the electricity grid and impacts our environment.
However, it is the power required to make your smartphone smart that matters the most when it comes to the energy consumption of our always-connected lifestyles. A couple of weeks ago, we covered this subject when we wrote an article on data centers. We talked about the invisible chain you trigger, across many servers around the world, when you click that ‘like’ or ‘send’ button. Simply loading your Facebook homepage, for instance, has this invisible effect, in the words of Facebook: “Loading a user’s home page typically requires accessing hundreds of servers, processing tens of thousands of individual pieces of data, and delivering the information selected in less than one second.”
The energy to process our digital lives consumes more than 2% of all the energy the world produces. This number will continue to grow as new data-intensive technologies like Machine Learning and the Internet of Things (IoT) increasingly come online around the world.
Innovation in Energy, Again, to Sustain Our Mobile Life
Just like the lithium batteries that made the digital revolution possible, technological innovation will enable the clean energy revolution to continue its expansion without painful compromises. Even in green California, 80% of the energy that the typical home or business consumes comes from hydrocarbons—coal, natural gas, or oil—which are carbon-emitting power sources. While more sustainable sources of energy such as wind and solar have made tremendous technological leaps in the last few decades, the problem of intermittency limits their growth and adoption. The simple fact is that solar panels do not produce energy when the sun isn’t shining, and wind turbines don’t move when there’s no wind.
Hydrogen has also experienced incredible technological progress in recent years. Steady improvements in the processes to make the universe’s most abundant energy available—including Hydrogen 2.0, which produces affordable, clean energy from water—could soon make it possible to diversify our mix of fuels. Thus, allowing hydrocarbons, wind, solar, and hydrogen to work in concert to make the electricity grids that power our cities more efficient, reliable and sustainable.
Human ingenuity will continue to shine through to help us progress in a sustainable way. The slow but steady work to make batteries small and powerful took decades and had many false starts; however, it eventually revolutionized the way we work and play. Similarly, the focused, steady work to make new energy sources available for us and our planet is starting to yield results everywhere.
Our connected future is indeed bright, provided we have the will to keep investing in new energy technology that can liberate us.
As the Hydrogen 2.0 ecosystem gains momentum, we’ll be sharing our views and insights on the new Hydrogen 2.0 Economy. We also update our blog every week with insightful and current knowledge in this growing energy field.