Having seen the now famous statistic that Bitcoin has roughly the same energy use as Argentina, I wondered how YouTube stacks up. So here’s a really rough calculation.
YouTube serves up around one billion hours of video content every day (https://www.engadget.com/2017-02-27-youtube-one-billion-hours-watched-daily.html) so that works out to 60 billion minutes watched per day.
According to Henry Reich at MinuteEarth (https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=EQzyo3q-C2Y), watching a video for one minute consumes around one AA battery’s worth of energy. This is the combination of both the energy needed to get the video from YouTube’s servers to your device and also the energy your device then uses to serve the video to your eyeballs and ears.
Now, one AA battery contains around 10,000 joules of energy (https://www.onelargeprawn.co.za/2011/04/20/how-much-power-is-in-an-aa-battery-and-can-it-kill/) [note: I make it more like 14,000 joules per AA battery but let’s be conservative).
So that’s 60 billion AA batteries per day used up by watching videos on YouTube. That works out to 600 trillion joules per day, or an average rate of just under 7 gigawatts (7 billion joules per second). That’s an annual energy use of 61 thousand billion watt hours – usually written as 61TWh (terawatt-hours).
The figure for bitcoin is 121.36TWh so – assuming that that MinuteEarth figure can be trusted – YouTube clocks in at 50% of bitcoin, or half an Argentina.
But…this is an underestimate. I haven’t counted the energy cost of YouTube’s server farms. Given the processing intensity of rendering video information, even when performed on dedicated graphics hardware, this is likely to be a significant addition to the above figure. Google doesn’t release information about its energy use, except to mention that they purchase renewable energy to the equivalent of 100% of their data centre usage as the energy for these is not directly from renewable sources. In 2019, this amounted to 5GW (https://www.google.com/about/datacenters/renewable/) or 43TWh but this is for all of Google’s datacenter usage. I don’t know what proportion of this is for YouTube specifically. It’s not just the amount of data stored, it’s how much processing power is needed to handle that data. If I can find an estimate I’ll add it.
One more thing, if we’re trying to compare the energy cost of YouTube to BitCoin, we should also include the all the energy costs that go into the video before it’s uploaded to google’s servers. This is really hard to estimate though, some videos are made captured on an antique phone/potato and sent off to YouTube wiit minimal work. Other videos are produced in studios, with multiple cameras, dedicated lights and hours of rendering on high-end graphics cards. Lots of videos will involve travel miles. Some will even include flights.
The bottom line for now is that the energy use of YouTube is at least in the same ballpark as both Bitcoin and Argentina. That shouldn’t be surprising since YouTube is the second most visited website on the internet (https://www.alexa.com/topsites) and a visit there is clearly more data-intensive than the top site, google.com.
Of course, even these very rough calculations can’t really help you determine whether this energy is being put to good use or not. It’s easy to argue that mining bitcoin is a waste of resources (for everyone else at least) but it’s more complicated with a website that hosts such a variety of videos as YouTube. Maybe take a look at the top channels (https://socialblade.com/youtube/top/100/mostviewed) if you can’t make up your mind.