Folding@home has brought together thousands of people (81 thousand active folders as of the time of this writing, as evidenced from Stanford’s One in a Million contributor drive.) This is awesome…tens of thousands of people teaming up to help researchers unravel the mysteries of terrible diseases.
But, there is a cost. If you are reading this blog, then you know the cost of scientific computing projects such as Folding@Home is environmental. In trying to save ourselves from the likes of cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, we are running a piece of software that causes our computers to use more electricity. In the case of dedicated folding@home computers, this can be hundreds of watts of power consumed 24/7. It adds up to a lot of consumed power, that in the end exits your computer as heat (potentially driving up your air conditioning costs as well).
If Stanford reaches their goal of 1 million active folders, then we have an order of magnitude more power consumption on our hands. Let’s do some quick math, assuming each folder contributes 200 watts continuous (low compared to the power draw of most dedicated Folding@home machines). In this case, we have 200 watts/computer * 24 hours/day * 365 days/year * 1,000,000 computers *1 kilowatt-hour/1000 watt-hours = 1,752,000,000 kilowatt-hours of power consumed in a year, in the name of Science!
That’s almost two billion kilowatt-hours, people. It’s 1.75 terawatt-hours (TWh)! Using the EPA’s free converter can put that into perspective. Basically, this is like driving 279 thousand extra cars for a year, or burning 1.5 billion pounds of coal. Yikes!
Is all this disease research really harming the planet? If it is, is it worth it? I don’t know. It depends on the outcome of the research, the potential benefit to humans, and the detriment to humans, animals, and the environment caused by that research. This opens up all sorts of what-if scenarios.
For example: what if Folding@Home does help find a future cure for many diseases, which results in extended life-spans. Then, the earth gets even more overpopulated than it is already. Wouldn’t the added environmental stresses negatively impact people’s health? Conversely, what if Folding@Home research results in a cure for a disease that allows a little girl or boy to grow to adulthood and become the inventor of some game-changing green technology?
It’s just not that easy to quantify.
Then, there is the topic of Folding@home vs. other distributed computing projects. Digital currency, for example. Bitcoin miners (and all the spinoffs) suck up a ton of power. Current estimates put Bitcoin alone at over 40 TWH a year.
That’s more power than some countries use, and twenty times more than my admittedly crude future Folding@home estimate. When you consider that the cryptocurrency product has only limited uses (many of which are on the darkweb for shady purposes), it perhaps helps cast Folding@home in a better light.
There is always room for improvement thought. That is the point of this entire blog. If we crazies are committed to turning our hard-earned dollars into “points”, we might as well do it in the most efficient way possible. And, while we’re at it, we should consider the environmental cost of our hobby and think of ways to offset it (that goes for the Bitcoin folks too).
I once ran across a rant on another online blog about how Folding@home is killing the planet. This was years ago, before the Rise of the Crypto. I wish I could find that now, but it seems to have been lost in the mists of time, long since indexed, ousted, and forgotten by the Google Search Crawler. In it, the author bemoaned over how F@H was murdering mother earth in the name of science. I recall thinking to myself, “hey, they’ve got a point”. And then I realized that I had already done a bunch of things to help combat the rising electric bill, and I bet most distributed computing participants have done some of these things too.
These things are covered elsewhere in this blog, and range from optimizing the computer doing the work to going after other non-folding@home related items to help offset the electrical and environmental cost. I started by switching to LED light-bulbs, then went to using space heaters instead of whole house heating methods in the winter. As I upgraded my Folding@home computer, I made it more energy efficient not just for F@H but for all tasks executed on that machine.
In the last two years, my wife and I bought a house, which gave us a whole other level of control over the situation. We had one of those state-subsidized energy audits done. They put in some insulation and air-sealed our attic, thus reducing our yearly heating costs. Eventually, we even decided to put solar panels on the roof and get an electric car (these last two weren’t because I felt guilty about running F@H, but because my wife and I are just into green technologies). We even use our Folding@home computer as a space heater in the winter, thus offsetting home heating oil use and negating any any environmental arguments against F@H in the winter months.
In conclusion, there is no doubt that distributed projects have an environmental cost. However, to claim that they are a waste of electricity or that they are killing the planet might be taking it too far. One has to ask if the cause is worth the environmental impact, and then figure out ways to lessen that impact (or in some cases get motivated to offset it completely. Solar powered folding farm, anyone?)