Fellow Caught Up in Media Controversy

Alexander D. Wissner-Gross, a fellow at the University’s Center for Environment, found himself in the middle of an imbroglio this weekend when his study on the environmental impact of computing was used in an article by the Sunday Times—the British paper—to claim that two Google searches generate as much carbon dioxide as boiling a kettle for a cup of tea.

Wissner-Gross later denied that this claim was included in his study, which he said was about web-usage in general, not Google in particular.

Google is combating the Sunday Times’ article, which declared that “Google is secretive about its energy consumption and carbon footprint,” and that it “generates high levels of C02.”

According to the publication, one Google search emits 7 grams of carbon dioxide—about half of the 15 grams discharged when boiling water in a kettle.

Later that day, Google’s Senior Vice President of Operations Urs Hölzle quickly responded to the article with a post on the official Google blog.

“One Google search is equivalent to about 0.2 grams of CO2,” he wrote. He added that a search uses “about the same amount of energy that your body burns in 10 seconds.”

Google Spokesperson Jamie Yood said in an e-mail to The Crimson yesterday that “the claims made in this article and the calculations this ‘study’ makes are many times too high.”

However in an article posted at TechNewsWorld.com on Monday, Yood said that Google recognizes its environmental impact.

“There’s an acknowledgment that Google is using energy, and on the business front it makes sense to get this energy cost as low as possible.”

Wissner-Gross also repudiated the tea-kettle numbers used in the article.

“I have no idea where they got those statistics,” Wissner-Gross said to the information technology Web site. “For some reason, in their story on the study, the Times had an axe to grind with Google.”

He denied ever singling the company out in his study on the environmental impact of computing, which will be published by the U.S. Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

“Our work has nothing to do with Google. Our focus was exclusively on the Web overall, and we found that it takes on average about 20 milligrams of CO2 per second to visit a Web site,” Wissner-Gross said.

But Wissner-Gross said that he was accurately quoted by the Sunday Times as saying that “a Google search has a definite environmental impact.”

He added that “Google operates huge data centers around the world that consume a great deal of power.”

The Sunday Times also claimed that the search engine consumes more energy than the average because it prioritizes speed over energy savings.

“The system minimizes delays but raises energy consumption,” the Sunday Times wrote.

However, Hölzle’s post on the Google blog argued that the search engine decreases the “reliance on car trips, pulp and paper” because, before the Internet, “answering a query meant traveling to the reference desk of your local library.” Hölzle added that “the average car driven for one kilometer (0.6 miles for those in the U.S.) produces as many greenhouse gases as a thousand Google searches.”

Hölzle also claimed that Google has “designed and built the most energy efficient data centers in the world.”

In October, Google reported that its Power Usage Effectiveness—a measure of power efficiency—had a quarterly average rating of 1.13, well below the Environmental Protection Agency’s reported average of 2.0 for data centers.

Wissner-Gross speculated as to why the Sunday Times targeted Google.

“It’s a really easy way to sell papers. Google is a very successful company and it’s a very easy way to get readership by making grandiose claims about them,” he said to TechNewsWorld.

The Sunday Times also ran an article in 2007 that raised concerns about Google’s privacy standards.

Wissner-Gross did not return The Crimson’s request for comment.

—Staff writer Ellen X. Yan can be reached at ellenyan@fas.harvard.edu.