A caveat before you go any further: I'm a postmodern hippie. I trained with Al Gore last July to deliver the Inconvenient Truth presentation. I go around working with businesses, industry and kids trying to identify positive steps we can take towards a more sustainable way of life, and I desperately want humanity -- starting with myself -- to be a bit more responsible.
You need to know that about me, so you understand the point of the story I'm about to tell. Last week, a company I work with moved onto a dedicated server. The company, like me, is genuine about wanting to do the right thing. So I, on behalf of this well-meaning organization, sought to offset the emissions from the dedicated server through renewable energy certificates (RECs).
The idea is simple: for the amount of power you're using, ensure that the equivalent amount is entering the grid in a renewable form. You might not know whether the specific watt being sent to your server came from a renewable source, but you know that the requisite amount of renewable energy has been put into the system.
Of course, in order to buy RECs, you have to know how much power you're using. Considering myself a reasonably savvy searcher, I figured this wouldn't be too hard a job. Armed with our server model number and CPU, I set out on my information retrieval mission. As I soon realized, the ubiquity of the search terms represents a problem to traditional search. "Power" "electricity" "server" "generation" "usage" -- these terms appear in so many potential contexts that it's incredibly difficult for a search engine to answer the question, "How much power does X server using Y CPU use in a year?"
I gave Aardvark a try. It performed better than Google, but still: the first response was a link to a calculator for server power usage that required me to input 87 variables, including what percentage of the day the server was active.
At this point, I felt like Julia Roberts in "Pretty Woman." I'm trying to go shopping but nobody will take my money. I didn't need a dress; I needed RECs. And I needed the answer to a simple question: how can I power this server responsibly?
Perhaps a better reference than Julia would be Jon Stewart, talking to Gore about the latter's new book: "I took this course over the weekend, read through the book, learned an awful lot... still don't know what to do... Even if you are, as I am, someone who believes the science, just because if I see something in print it must be true, but I believe, ok, the world is warming... surely human activity must have an impact on the world. There are 6 billion of us and, you know, many of us live in paved areas, so of course... But it seems like we won't change, you know; we didn't switch from horses until we got cars. I almost feel like, when you say we have all these different choices we can do... just give us one. Just say, 'We're switching to geothermal and we're doing it tomorrow and here's how we're doing it...'"
For complex queries like "What is the best response to climate change?" very few of us have the time, capacity or interest to investigate the full breadth of options out there and come to a totally independent, informed solution. Google failed in this instance because the quest for the answer precluded any answer. But most of us will readily exchange a few kilowatts of accuracy for several hours of additional investigation.
This is where SEO comes in. Environmentally minded SEO geeks, here is your mission: find us an answer, any answer. If it's 80% decent, fine. Then optimize the heck out of it. If SEO can make an initial solution accessible, more of us will partake -- and better some people partaking of an 80% solution than zero people partaking of a 100% solution.
A few minutes after I received the link to the calculator, another Aardvark user sent me a simple formula: your model uses X. Each hard drive uses Y. Multiply the number of your hard drives by Y and add X, and you'll be sweet.
We did the rough math, and purchased the RECs. Here's hoping the SEO community can make it easier for the next person.