Doubtful: Nuclear Proponents Claim iPhone Use Consumes as much Electricity as a Refrigerator
People who have viewed the film Pandora’s Promise, or read reviews and quotes from it, might recall that Michael Shellenberger claimed at one point that an iPhone uses as much electricity as a refrigerator. Because it’s a film for a mass audience, and not a scientific report, he didn’t have to provide evidence for this surprising statement. He did explain that it is not the phone that uses so much electricity, but the servers and wireless networks that add to the energy consumption, but still, it seems like an exaggeration.
The commonsense reason to doubt the claim is that if it were true, phone charges would be much more expensive. I have a recent model refrigerator that is fairly efficient, but still it consumes more than any appliance in the house. It seems to account for about 25% of monthly consumption. For other people, the figure may vary, depending on how they cook, heat, and do laundry. In any case, it is hard to imagine that my cell phone carrier is including in my bill a cost that is equal to what I pay TEPCO to run my refrigerator.
My suspicions about this iPhone allegation led me to look around to see what others might have said about it. It turns out that before it was used to say we need nuclear energy, it was used to say we need coal energy. Last August, Curtis Cartier of MSN News took up the issue in an article which is excerpted below:
“A new study claims that the smartphone in your pocket uses more energy than the refrigerator in your kitchen. The report, which was funded by a pair of coal industry lobbying groups, suggests that a tremendous amount of energy will be needed to keep powering the world's digital devices and that coal will provide the solution. But while the paper is making waves in the technology and energy world, its conclusions are being attacked by some researchers who call it “baloney” and “ridiculous.”
Among the claims made are that the worldwide computer IT infrastructure uses power "equal to all the electric generation of Japan and Germany combined," and that watching an hour of video per week on a smartphone or tablet "consumes annually more electricity in the remote networks than two new refrigerators use in a year."
The study is called "The Cloud Begins With Coal: Big Data, Big Networks, Big Infrastructure, and Big Power" and it's written by Mark P. Mills, the CEO of Digital Power Group, a tech-industry advisement firm. The study was sponsored by the National Mining Association and the American Coalition for Clean Coal Energy.
It turns out that this isn't the first time Mills has compared small, portable electronic devices with refrigerators. In 2000 he made the case that California's energy crisis was caused by computers, and showed data he said proved a Palm Pilot handheld device "can add as much new electric load as a refrigerator."
Jonathan Koomey, a research fellow at the Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance at Stanford University, told MSN News that he "spent years debunking" Mills' claims and published a paper in 2000 that directly contradicted his findings. Koomey said he was shocked to see Mills "rehashing" his ideas now.
"If he is making this claim again, that would be just crazy, outrageous," Koomey said. "What we found in 2000 is that a refrigerator used 2,000 times more electricity than the networking electricity of a wireless Palm Pilot. He is not a credible source of information."
[Another academic] Gernot Heiser, echoed Koomey's sentiments that Mills' work was flawed.
[Another academic] Zhou said [Mills’] measurements for the power consumption of smartphones was at least "one or two magnitude" higher than they should be, [but] the subject of data center electricity usage is an important issue and it "should raise concern."
Mills emailed a statement to MSN News, defending his research and saying that "at least a dozen" scholarly articles give similar estimates for power usage, [and that the] intention in writing the paper was not to promote coal energy.
[As for] worldwide energy usage of computers, Mills' figures are nearly twice that of the source he cites. Also, his main contention, that a smartphone uses more energy per year "than two new refrigerators" is based on a complex equation he coined himself, which includes numerous variables, and is not found by itself in any of the sources he cites.
So this is another example of how Pandora’s Promise played fast and loose with the truth, dressing up disputed interpretations as established facts. These studies of energy use in the communications industry involve contentious methodologies and have yielded nothing conclusive, but advocates of any stripe can run with them to make whatever point they want. Environmentalists could point to the refrigerator analogy and say this proves the Apple is not green. Coal and nuclear lobbyists can make us tremble in fear of losing our beloved devices. “Yes!” we should scream, cowering in a corner. “You’re right. I care about the environment, but not if it means losing my iPhone! OK? We need coal. We need nuclear! I’ll stop using a fridge. Just please, please, don’t take away my iPhone!”
Even if it were true that our iPhone used as much energy as a refrigerator, it would say nothing about the need to preserve the ecosystem for other life forms and cultures that don’t want to be slaves to the same conveniences as us. It says something about the values of the people making the argument that they would assume we would all agree that our gadgets and our parasitic economic system are non-negotiable givens, that it wouldn’t be more important to keep a country free of nuclear waste and find other ways to exist. No, actually, when it comes down to it, I’ll choose life.
And besides, didn’t they ever think that the comparison might be saying something good about the fantastic improvements in the energy efficiency of refrigerators?
Curtis Cartier, “Rumor: An iPhone uses more power than a refrigerator.” MSN News, August 19, 2013.