Which uses more electricity: the iPhone in your pocket, or the refrigerator humming in your kitchen? Hard as it might be to believe, the answer is probably the iPhone. As you can read in a post on a new report by Mark Mills — the CEO of the Digital Power Group, a tech- and investment-advisory firm — a medium-size refrigerator that qualifies for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star rating will use about 322 kW-h a year. The average iPhone, according to Mills’ calculations, uses about 361 kW-h a year once the wireless connections, data usage and battery charging are tallied up. And the iPhone — even the latest iteration — doesn’t even keep your beer cold. (Hat tip to the Breakthrough Institute for noting the report first.)
[UPDATE: You can see the calculations behind the specific iPhone comparison, which was done by Max Luke of the Breakthrough Institute, at the bottom of the post. It's important to note that the amount of energy used by any smartphone will vary widely depending on how much wireless data the device is using, as well as the amount of power consumed in making those wireless connections—estimates for which vary. The above examples assumes a relatively heavy use of 1.58 GB a month—a figure taken from a survey of Verizon iPhone users last year. (Details at bottom of post.) That accounts for the high-end estimate of the total power the phone would be consuming over the course of a year. NPD Connected Intelligence, by contrast, estimates that the average smartphone is using about 1 GB of cellular data a month, and in the same survey that reported high data use from Verizon iPhone users, T-Mobile iPhone users reported just 0.19 GB of data use a month—though that's much lower than any other service. Beyond the amount of wireless data being streamed, total energy consumption also depends on estimates of how much energy is consumed per GB of data. The top example assumes that every GB burns through 19 kW of electricity. That would be close to a worst-case model. The Centre for Energy-Efficient Communications (CEET) in Melbourne assumes a much lower estimate of 2 kWh per GB of wireless data, which would lead to a much lower electricity consumption estimate as well—as little as 4.6 kWh a year with the low T-Mobile data use. In the original version of the post, I should have noted that there is a significant range in estimates of power use by wireless networks, and that this study goes with the very high end.]
The iPhone is just one reason why the information-communications-technologies (ICT) ecosystem, otherwise known as the digital economy, demands such a large and growing amount of energy. The global ICT system includes everything from smartphones to laptops to digital TVs to — especially — the vast and electron-thirsty computer-server farms that make up the backbone of what we call “the cloud.” In his report, Mills estimates that the ICT system now uses 1,500 terawatt-hours of power per year. That’s about 10% of the world’s total electricity generation or roughly the combined power production of Germany and Japan. It’s the same amount of electricity that was used to light the entire planet in 1985. We already use 50% more energy to move bytes than we do to move planes in global aviation. No wonder your smartphone’s battery juice constantly seems on the verge of running out.