This Solar-Powered, 'Low Tech' Website Goes Offline When It's Cloudy

Low Tech Magazine has completely re-envisioned how websites work in order to create a site that uses very little power.

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Oct 2 2018, 4:48pm

Image: Kris De Decker

It’s taking a lot of energy for you to read this article. Your device sent a request to a server, which then sent data back to your device, conjuring up a set custom fonts, high-resolution images, and meticulously formatted text, links, and video. Modern websites also have plugins and scripts that make them much more complicated—and energy intensive—than simple, static HTML sites. The more media the server sends to your device, the more energy is used.

It’s not just Motherboard; every website and product connected to the internet would not be able to exist without a vast network of wireless routers, fiber optic cables running underground and underwater, and data centers that house the servers which bring the internet to life. Data centers in the US alone eat up 70 billion kilowatts of energy per year, according to a 2016 estimate from the Department of Energy—that’s 1.8 percent of all energy use across the country.

The internet is not ethereal, and a new project from the blog Low-Tech Magazine aims to make that issue more tangible. Low-Tech Magazine—a blog operated by Kris De Decker that has run on Wordpress since 2007—launched a “Low-Tech,” solar version of the site that’s designed from the ground-up to use as little energy as possible.

In a Skype call with Motherboard, De Decker said that he doesn’t think people don’t care about how much energy it takes they use the internet, they just don’t understand the extent of the problem.

“There’s this idea that the internet is immaterial, it’s somewhere floating in clouds,” he said. “Of course, it’s a very material thing that uses resources, materials, energy—and quite a lot actually.”

The site is static, meaning that there’s only one version of the site that exists each day; a dynamic site, meanwhile, conjures up a live, up-to-date version of the website as it changes throughout the day. Low-Tech Magazine also uses the default font and dithered images, an early-internet visual style that simplifies a complex color scheme to grayscale and uses about 10 times less energy than full resolution images. The site also runs entirely on solar power (there’s an image of the panel, which powers the site from Barcelona, below.) So if there’s a long period of cloudiness in Barcelona, Low-Tech Magazine will go offline.

Image: De Decker

De Decker said his long-term goal is to eventually migrate 11 years of content from Low-Tech Magazine to the new website.

“Low-Tech Magazine—you can see it on the internet, but it’s also a very palpable thing,” De Decker said. “There’s a server, a solar panel here in the house, and you can see it. You can touch it. You can break it. You can destroy it.”

So why isn’t everybody trying to create a low-energy website? It’s difficult. The solar-powered version of Low-Tech Magazine required the help of web designers Roel Roscam Abbing and Marie Otsuka, a year of preparation, and roughly $4,600.

“I’m not sure if concept of going offline when there’s not enough renewable energy would become mainstream,” De Decker said. “I think this something for websites, blogs, and media that focus on sustainability—there, you have this tension that you’re writing about sustainability, but you’re not at all aware of the energy use of your website.”

There’s an environmental argument to making more lightweight websites, but that may not be the most compelling reason to use one. In fact, scientists for the US Department of Energy have argued that the amount of energy used by computers is a dismissable, a minor source of fossil fuel emissions compared to, say, the use of cars and airplanes. A better reason for lightweight websites is that they load faster for people with unreliable or slow internet access.

“I’ve gotten mail from people that say, ‘Oh, I’m here on my old dial-up connection, and your page loads really fast,’” De Decker said. “That’s pretty cool because more than half of world has very unreliable or no internet connection. So in that way, it’s not just about sustainability, it’s about accessibility.”

A prototype battery storage system. Image: De Decker

More than 24 million Americans don’t have access to high-speed internet, many of whom live in rural, tribal, and low-income areas. For people who live in these areas, it can be more difficult to find a job, educational resources, get information relevant to an emergency, and generally take advantage of the internet in ways most of us take for granted.

Still, running a low-tech website could compromise a site’s placement in Google search results. Although Google prioritizes faster websites in its search algorithm, it may also penalize sites that go offline intermittently. However, De Decker said Low-Tech Magazine was designed to use such little energy that it might be able to stay up even if it’s cloudy.

“We made the blog so energy efficient, the problem becomes to make it go offline; I’m building a power generator now [which could] make sure the site stays online through the night, even if there’s not enough sun during the day,” De Decker said. “The fact that it goes offline is more to catch people’s attention. To be consequent in the idea.”

De Decker said the theme of Low-Tech Magazine is to look to the past not just out nostalgia, but to find inspiration for the future using technology that we consider “obsolete.”

“The feedback on the project has been quite overwhelming,” De Decker said. “If you lower the energy [used to run a website], then how you produce energy becomes of secondary importance.”