Friday, August 30, 2013

Public radio admits your iPhone doesn't use as much electricity as a refrigerator, but says the lie is useful to stimulate conversation

No, your phone doesn't use as much electricity as a refrigerator

Marketplace, American Public Media, 8/23/13

Could it possibly be true that watching videos on my smartphone uses as much electricity as two refrigerators?

This is an example of a claim that sounds interesting, but really has no basis in fact,” says Jonathan Koomey, a research fellow at the Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance at Stanford University.

Koomey has devoted years of his professional career to fighting this refrigerator analogy. It first came up more than a decade ago, by the same author, then making the claim that a Palm Pilot used the same electricity as a fridge.

Koomey says fighting it again now is pretty frustrating, “I’d rather not have to spend time rehashing this stuff.” But, the claim is back. So Koomey is back; figuring out just how much electricity goes into making and using my smartphone.

By his calculation, it’s about 60 kilowatt-hours.

Mark Mills, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and the author of the phone-equals-refrigerator claim, estimates it’s closer to 700 kilowatt-hours.

Mills is author of a report called The Cloud Begins with Coal, sponsored by the mining and coal industries. He says he wants to get people thinking about how much electricity these devices use. And he doesn’t think the controversy around the refrigerator analogy distracts people from his bigger point.

“The debate makes it an interesting conversation, like we’re having,” says Mills.

He stands by his calculations and his main assertion: “It is accurate: it uses a lot of electricity. Now if someone were to say, it’s not equal to a refrigerator or equals half a refrigerator or a tenth of a refrigerator, that’s still a big number.”

Why use this analogy again? Why compare a phone to a fridge, when Mills got so blasted the first time?

“If I came up to you and remarked to you that there is a one-headed cat around the corner from your house you would be totally uninterested,” says Bruce Nordman, a research scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory*, “but if I said there was a three-headed cat you’d be amazed that it exists and want to go see it; so these fantastical assertions naturally attract people’s attention, whether or not they are real.”

Nordham says the idea that our phones use as much energy as a fridge is basically that three-headed cat; it’s not real. And still, these things get picked up, and passed around.

Which raises another question -- why?

“Thinking about a smartphone, a tiny small device, that sits in our pocket using the same amount of energy as a huge refrigerator, seems so amazing that we just have to share us with someone else,” says Jonah Berger, a marketing professor at the Wharton school and author of "Contagious: Why Things Catch On." “It’s a neat little factoid that makes us look smart, even if in this case, it’s not actually true.”

He says the controversy around it helps makes it sticky and it taps into a broader conversation about the environment. “If everyone is talking about the environment, they are looking for something to add to that conversation,” Berger says. “We all know that gas prices are up, what's there to say that’s new? But if I can plug in a new fact to that conversation, it’s going to get talked about a lot.”

Even if that fact isn’t factual.

Related: Article in Nature suggests ‘high-carbon addictions’ such as using your iPhone can be ‘treated’ the same way as drug addiction

1 comment:

  1. The newer, better, phone chargers are switching type chargers. These new chargers use VERY little power when not charging. I have placed two of them in a power strip and measured the power draw with no cell-phone attached. This arrangement used less than 1 watt over a period of one hour. Part of that was the indicator light on the power strip. Most of these fear-mongers use the name plate data which is rarely used even when charging a completely dead battery. Name plate current is the maximum rated power it can deliver. It is not the typical power used - like a light-bulb.

    Comments like this make me think the perpetrator/spreader is DUMB and crying wolf, not that they are trying to engage in meaningful "conversation."