Netflix may be one of this generationís most popular ways for people to zone out and forget the world around them, but it may be time to wake up to the streaming serviceís environmental impact.
Count me amongst the Americans who have assumed that the amount of energy required to stream Orange Is the New Black on Netflix was fairly negligible, or not much different than keeping the TV on. In fact, behind the scenes, it requires way more power to wirelessly send those moving images to the comfort of your own living room.
As Salon points out, streaming just half an hour of Netflix content burns the equivalent amount of energy necessary to fuel a refrigerator for a full week. Considering that the average Netflix subscriber watches far more than 30 minutes a week, that figure deserves more attention than it receives. At the rate my household goes through films, we would need several more kitchens to store all of those hypothetical refrigerators.
Still, that stat may be too small to convey the full scope. Nearly 10% of the earthís electricity is allocated toward cloud streaming, wireless networks and the devices that play this technology. To put that figure in further perspective, thatís the same amount of energy that was necessary to light the entire planet just 30 years ago.
Itís unfortunate that Netflixís streaming technology advanced well before clean energy has been implemented on a broad scale. Sadly, Netflix relies primarily on coal to energize its operations, resulting in a lot of carbon emissions. Knowing its ultimate impact, streaming a climate change documentary on Netflix doesnít seem nearly as satisfying.
The good news is that not all digital content providers are as dependent on coal. One-third of Googleís power comes from renewable energy, while Apple relies 100% on renewable sources.
For as long as Netflix has been around, people have questioned its environmental impact. Starting back when it was just a DVD-rental-by-mail delivery service, researchers concluded that Netflix was greener than driving to a video rental store to pick up a movie. Things got more complicated, however, when Netflix introduced home streaming options. Although intuitively it may seem like streaming would be the better option as it eliminates the shipping process, the fact is that the energy it takes to power the streaming at the Netflix facilities exceeds the energy necessary for the USPS to deliver a DVD to your house.
While I canít say Iím prepared to cancel my Netflix subscription, having this knowledge will not only make me a more informed consumer, but also a more responsible inhabitant of planet earth. Next time I have a hankering to turn on a mind-numbing B-movie, itíll be valuable to remember that my brain isnít the only thing streaming the film will be hurting.