Rumor: An iPhone uses more power than a refrigerator

Man viewing the Apple iPhone 5 during an event in San Francisco.

A new paper claims it takes a huge amount of energy to power a smartphone. But is this theory good science or corporate propaganda?

FALSE: Three other researchers doubt the study, a separate paper conflicts with it, and the support behind the research comes with an obvious agenda

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."

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.

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 makes the case that the enormous amount of power needed to power the global wireless world requires coal mining on an equally enormous scale. The study was sponsored by the National Mining Association and the American Coalition for Clean Coal Energy.

Old claims and overestimations

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."

Gernot Heiser, a professor at the University of New South Wales in Sydney and co-author of a 2010 study on power consumption in smartphones, echoed Koomey's sentiments that Mills' work was flawed.

Writing to MSN News, Heiser said Mills' work "seems blatantly wrong." He said Mills overestimates the amount of power used by a modern smartphone, in this case a Galaxy S III, by more than four times.

"I'd have to have a quick look to see how they arrive at this figure, but it certainly looks like baloney to me," Heiser said.

Gang Zhou, an associate professor of computer science at the College of Williams and Mary, was less direct in attacking Mills' claims, but nonetheless said his measurements for the power consumption of smartphones was at least "one or two magnitude" higher than they should be. Nonetheless, Zhou said the subject of data center electricity usage is an important issue and it "should raise concern."

No other scholarly articles that support Mills' conclusions were able to be located. Mills did not immediately respond to requests to comment on his work.

UPDATE: 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, all of which are cited in his article. He also said that his intention in writing the paper was not to promote coal energy.

"NONE of the data in my report are new/original — this was a technical literature search study. Related: the little red triangles in the Executive Summary graph of global ICT use are a 'hidden' fact for benefit of insiders on this debate — those data points come from Greenpeace — right in line with our conclusion. And finally, the point of the title (and sponsors) we pedantically noted ... there are NO recommendations on how to make electricity; it is simply a fact that coal is the largest global source. IEA stated that 68% of net additions to world supply over the past decade came from coal — a period contemporaneous with Internet growth. Therefore net new electric demand from ANYTHING preferentially came from coal."

Mills' article does quote several official sources and a handful of scientific journal articles, though in cases like 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.

 

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