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How Much Energy Does It Take To Store An Email?

Email Envelope

I’m going to guess that I’m not alone when I nonchalantly hit the “Archive” button instead of the “Delete” button to remove a good portion of my emails from my Inbox.  Am I right?  

I know, deep down within my being, that maybe that’s not the right course of action for the planet.  I’ve heard that there are enormous Googleplexes in the middle of nowhere, secretly sucking up megatons of power.  I understand that the “Archive” neverland is actually a real place on a hard drive somewhere within that Googleplex.

So this morning I set out on a (LONG) quest to find out how much energy it takes to store an email message.  I must say, I searched and searched and did not find a solid answer.

I found an interesting article about Google storage in Harper’s, which states:

“Velcroed together, stacked in racks, and lined up in back-to-back rows, the servers require a half-watt in cooling for every watt they use in processing, and Google leads the field in squeezing more servers into less space. Based on a projected industry standard of 500 watts per square foot in 2011, the Dalles plant can be expected to demand about 103 megawatts of electricity—enough to power 82,000 homes, or a city the size of Tacoma, Washington.”

The article goes on to write about the Dalles Dam specifically, which utilizes power from a “clean” hydroelectric power plant that has obliterated salmon populations, beautiful waterfalls, and the area economy.

The Dalles Dam

Which is when it dawned on me that of course there is more to this issue. Isn’t there always?

When we Archive an email, it gets stored on a hard drive somewhere.  Not only are we utilizing the energy it takes to run the hard drive, we are also using the energy it took to mine the raw materials and manufacture that hard drive, the energy it took to ship that hard drive, the materials to create the place where that hard drive is housed, the energy used to keep that hard drive cool, the multiple cabling used to connect that hard drive to power and other equipment, the materials and energy it took to generate the power that drives it… and that’s just the part I thought up on the spot.

A simple email with text is very small, maybe a couple of kilobytes.  But 10,000 very small emails become 20,000 kilobytes (20 megabytes).  Google tells me I’m storing about 3 gigabytes of emails.  Multiply that by the number of people who are storing a similar amount, and that number becomes pretty darn BIG!

Now include all the many photos we’ve all uploaded to Flickr, Picassa, WordPress, Blogger, Facebook, etc – each of which are between 100 kilobytes and several megabytes – and suddenly we have a whole lot of data being stored out there.  With a lot of resources used to store it.

Googleplex Being Built

Finished Googleplex

Google’s complex at The Dalles includes three 68,680 square foot data centers, an administration building, a dormitory, and an 18,000 square foot facility that houses its cooling towers.  I don’t mean to pick on Google here, nor this particular site.  Google has several such sites, but think about all the other companies that have them!

So whatever the number is for individual email storage seems like it doesn’t matter too terribly much.  It’s small.  Just as my vote in a national election is small.  But they all add up, and together they make a large impact.

I’m going to go delete my unneeded emails now.  And duplicate photos I don’t need (maybe some bad ones, too!).  And I’ll start hitting that Delete button a whole lot more.

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23 comments to How Much Energy Does It Take To Store An Email?

  • Rob

    So, while I don’t post here often, this obviously cried out to my inner nerd. Okay, maybe not so inner, but you get the point….

    Okay, you can’t find a good answer for a few reasons. The first is the way we store data is changing rapidly. Technologies now exist at the device where all this data is stored that allows for all of this data (your email, my email, everyone elses email) to be de-duplicated. So for example, where 100′s of terabytes of data might have normally been needed to store all of our email, that same 100+ terabytes might now be able to sit on about 10 terabytes of space. They do this so that companies can not only not have to invest in more and more hardware which means not only, in the past, meant more funding for each device, but space, cooling and power requirements. Now that fit that same data on a much smaller hardware footprint, which requires much less power and cooling.

    These technologies are being adopted quite quickly in the industry. They first started just for backups of the data. Yes, of course not only do those original copies of all that data exist, but other copies on active disk, and probably also on tape somewhere being archived in a climate controlled facility. However, now those same technologies are being used in front line applications, allowing for greater space utilization. As any IT person might also mention, this is also happening for the servers that run all these applications.

    Rather than throwing out a new server for each and every application, which was pretty much what happened in the past, these application systems are now being virtualized. Multilple individual servers are now being hosted on the same physical system. Again, this is being done for serveral reasons: cost, power, and cooling – not to mention others.

    Companies are making moves to a more efficient use of their resources, but for very selfish reasons. At least they are doing it though.

  • I’ve often pondered this question myself. I sometimes wonder how much greener all this electronic “paperwork” is than the actual paperwork.

    That said, I’m ruthless with my emails. I read them, respond or act as necessary, then delete them. I currently have 3 emails in my inbox at home, all of which are order confirmations or online receipts, and I’ll delete them once I receive my orders or print the receipts (for my tuition… I usually don’t print receipts but I need to for reimbursement for my job). At work, I never have more than 5 emails in my inbox even though I probably get 50 each day. I read and delete. I’ve been told, however, that an email never really goes away. I’m not exactly sure how that works, but I can’t stand email clutter in my inbox.

  • Wow. I never thought about that before.

  • My goal is to keep email cleaned up so that there is less clutter on my machine. Honestly, how often do we really need to review an email? Not that often.

    My bad habits to clean up:
    1. Saving an email because it contains information I want (such as a recipe or address), thinking I’ll get it later. Later comes and I can’t find it amidst all the others.

    2. Keeping emails from friends as reference of past conversations. I rarely go back and read these. In fact, when a friend and I had a huge falling out a few years back, deleting all her emails (after a year that I didn’t hear from her) was a huge relief.

    3. Keeping every darn GoogleAlert that I get. Who cares? I’m trying to ditch my obsession with stats and doing a pretty good job of it.

  • While the email archiving is an eye opener, there is certainly more to this!

    It costs more in terms of energy to print a page than to keep a soft copy a hard drive.
    It costs less energy to keep a soft copy on a hard drive than a memory stick.
    It costs far less to keep a soft copy of a photo than to get a hard copy from a digital camera.

    The list goes on…

    But the biggest one of all is multiple, non upgradable computers per home!

    Regardless of the size of your mail box (try to archive to your hard drive) buying a computer than can’t easily be upgraded is a huge waste all the way around. Or buying two or four.

    Great article and food for thought!

  • Wow, you must be the only person who thinks about whether or not e-mail is good for the planet. I’m not sure I’m convinced that those data centers are all just storing e-mail. All right, I’ll start deleting rather than archiving the things I don’t read, but I don’t think I’ll rigorously change my archive habits for the planet. I don’t think Google will change their data structure if people started using even less than 2% of their allotted storage space.

  • Beijo

    I’m with Abbie. I wonder what the real energy trade off is between the example 10,000 small emails vs. 10,000 small pieces of paper (or 10,000 8×10 sheets of paper for that matter).

  • Jessica

    I have to admit that I’ve never really thought about this, though it does make sense. How much energy does it take to store an e-mail, especially considering that many e-mails are now being stored for years. Does it really save more energy and resources to save an e-mail in perpetuity than to print a page one time? At what point do the energy expenditures begin to even out?

  • Beijo

    Here is something: the first hard drive (IBM 305 RAMAC) was built in 1956 and stayed in production as late as 1961. It held 4.4MB of data, was larger than a fridge and cost over $25,000.00/month to lease (2009 dollars).
    The storage capacity of a 4.7 GB DVD (.64 cents apiece at costco) is 1068 times more that of the RAMAC.
    But something more tangible to what we all know, that same DVD can hold 3357 times the data of the 3 ½ in 1.4 MB floppy disks we all used in the early 90s.

    I don’t have any numbers on how much energy went into the design, build, transport, maintenance, etc of the RAMAC, our beloved 1.4 MB floppies or 1 DVD, but I’m guessing energy used per unit of storage space has significantly decreased. Who knows what will be available tomorrow. Maybe a zero carbon FP option? We seem closer today ever.
    Maybe we should all store on DVDs until then? :)

  • monica

    I had email with one company (Gosh, I wish I could remember which one!) that had an option to block emails from someone–permanently. I am not computer savy to know how to change emails without changing the other settings like the cookie override. I think that if an email is reported as Phishing, it should not be allowed to enter the inbox again.

    When I get an email, I read what it is and leave it in the inbox as read, but only save only receipt, or tracking number. I bought books online before and ONLY if there is a problem do I print it out, to accompany returning the book. When I get my refund I delete the email. I suppose if i bought lots of things, I might have to have a better system.

  • [...] Source Except: “I’m going to guess that I’m not alone when I nonchalantly hit the “Archive” button instead of the “Delete” button to remove a good portion of my emails from my Inbox. Am I right?” [...]

  • [...] scan past these posts and move on to things that I find more interesting like non-toxic cleaners, how much energy it takes to store an email, or reducing food [...]

  • Rob, Thanks for enlightening my inner nerd! : ) Great to hear that as technology grows, so does its capacity to use fewer resources.

    Abbie & Chile, Wow, I wish I were so ruthless. But this research has made me more so. Why do I keep some of that crap? No longer!

    Christy B, I have probably only printed one or two emails in the last 5 years. I’m always surprised that others do that! And great point about the computers – I do wish those would become more efficient in terms of upgrading.

    Beijo, Love the research – thank you!! I would venture to guess that growing the tree, cutting down the tree, processing it into paper, shipping it, etc. – and all the other many things that go into printing an email – make it more efficient to save the email online. And from your research saving it electronically sounds like it might be better than saving on a disc (and safer).

    BUT sometimes you really don’t need to save it at all, do you?

  • jherazob

    Sorry to answer this late, had intended to do it the same day then forgot about it :)

    A couple weeks ago there was a lot of noise on the blogosphere because some guy claimed that a google search spent the same ammount of energy needed to boil a kettle. Google basically answered “Are you nuts? look around, if there’s a big company involved in clean energy is us, and your numbers were waaaaaay high”. Link of the response is here:
    It also has a link to their page informing about their datacenter energy strategies:
    They affirm that they’re commited to have a neutral carbon print.

    Apart from that i’ve been hearing for quite a while that they’re pushing things a lot towards the clean energy issues. I remember they even proposed a plan to have USA running on 100% alternative energy by 2030 or something like that. And they’ve even looked at exotic technologies like one that the speaker refered to as “what fusion wanted to be” (i’ll get details if i remember). I don’t think you have to worry much about google and gmail in particular, they seem commited to this.

    Now, what about hotmail, yahoo mail and others? i have no idea :P

  • jheraob, Thank you for this information. I do remember the kettle scenario. It is wonderful that Google is doing what it can to work toward renewable energy. I think Google is a very forward-thinking company for its attention to employee needs as well.

    At the same time, the hydroelectric plant pictured above is considered renewable energy. It has still had those negative impacts I listed above. No power is perfect power. We’ve visited this issue before here. Furthermore, the materials to build these structures and the equipment used to maintain them are built with non-renewable resources. The best option, still, is to reduce our usage as much as we can.

  • [...] recently read a blog post discussing the environmental impact of using and storing your average email. The blog linked to an [...]

  • martin

    Storing a gigabyte of e-mail for a year uses about as much energy as walking to the store and buying a glass of orange juice. By all means delete – but please be aware of what a minute difference you are making.


  • Thanks for the post. I touched on the same topic in my own post on the
    Stewardship and Sustainability of our Online Lives.

    Another interesting note about Gmail: Many e-mail programs offer you the the option to not save a copy a message when you send it. Sending a message that is primarily large attachment is one case where you might not want to use the disk space in your Sent Mail folder. Gmail does not have an option to turn automatically saving a copy of every e-mail you send!

  • [...] I pictured it like burning a cd. The cd just holds the data until you want to use it. Well, I was wrong actually. The hard drive holding all our memory uses energy to run and then you have to get all [...]

  • [...] a recent article on the One Green Generation website, we found that our online storage (emails, pictures, videos, etc.) combined with other’s can [...]

  • I am currently writing a blog on this very issue and my research drove me here. I believe there is a huge over reliance on other people’s data centres causing a massively negative impact on the environment. Instead of sharing data “in other people’s cloud” and thus helping cause the expansion of datacentres, why not use the storage and computers you already have to share data? (Disclaimer: I work for, that is working to enable just that).

  • The costs are higher to print a page than to keep a soft copy a hard drive.
    I think it is better to help the resources to be available. KLets go with renewable energy resources now!

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