Building a Solar Powered Website
Kyle Mac and Matthew Tambellini in conversation with Mathew Bate
Photos by Ben Clement, Kyle Mac and Hayden Somerville
Every time you go online you're leaving behind a carbon footprint. We speak to two designers, Kyle Mac and Matthew Tambellini, about how good design can be used to mitigate the digital waste of our online antics.
Mathew Bate: So you guys are graphic designers and your recent work is around waste. Before we get to that, tell me a bit more about what you usually do, what your values are and what the purpose of design is, in your opinion.
Kyle Mac: Matt and I run our own small graphic design and development shops independently and both base our businesses from a studio in an art-deco era building called Mitchell House, in Melbourne’s CBD. Our shared location often gives us the opportunity to pair up and collaborate on interesting projects such as Welcome to Wasteland. Matt stems from a brand and editorial background, whilst I place myself closer at the digital end of graphic design - brand, interaction and creative coding.
Matthew Tambellini: In terms of design values, our aim with every project starts with listening and research. We try to uncover something new that we didn’t know previously. Whether that is through conversation, collecting books or from found matter(s) whilst travelling that can inform an idea or aesthetic. Overall though, the purpose of design is to make things better. Whether that is for yourself, for a client or for the better of mankind [laughs], it all depends on the project.
So when we talk about waste, we’re usually picturing a garbage bin or something like that. We don’t really think, or talk, about digital waste. What exactly is digital waste?
Should we as digital consumers be thinking more about our digital consumption?
KM: Yes, but in a manner that relates to your own daily consumption. Efforts in measuring your consumption online or via use of mobile apps should be up there with the efforts you make in order to eat a balanced diet and lead a healthy life. There are some great apps that help you measure your own digital consumption, like Screen Time that comes with Apple’s iOS. Screen Time allows you to access real-time reports about how much time you spend on your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch, and set limits for what you want to manage. It might only be a matter of time until we see endless scrolling as a bad thing, like eating too many sweets. In the future we might view someone that is walking while texting/browsing the internet the same as we view someone who is staggering around drunk and disorderly. Maybe certain levels of digital consumption will be outlawed all together.
What things contribute the most to digital waste?
KM: Images seem to be most wasteful part of digital waste in web design, most of which are riddled with opportunity for data reduction. It could be as simple as asking whether we can get by with fewer images or lower grade dithered images. We’ve become quite spoilt for choice now that we can get everything in gloriously high definition. Also, auto playing videos constantly send requests to the server, asking for more energy. But, above all, the lack of a strategic approach when creating for the web is a big contributing factor. We could be looking at exchanging more wasteful content for alternatives like still images instead of video – or even text instead of images – as long as the business goals are still met and the end user’s experience is not overly diminished.
Are there any crazy statistics about digital waste?
KM: The average website is now more than 2MB, twice the size of the average page just three years ago! Imagine if you doubled your weight from 80 kilograms to 160 kilograms in three years. You’d be a little embarrassed, right? A one-megabyte email (an email that is 1MB) during its total lifecycle emits 20 grams of CO2, which is the equivalent CO2 emitted by an old 60 watt lamp lit for 25 minutes. It is estimated that the number of emails sent per day in 2018 was more than 281 billion! The amount of waste simply from emails going back and forth is terrifying. Sending 20 emails a day for one year emits the same amount of CO2 as a car travelling 1000 kilometres.
A single router consumes 10,000 watts of energy (10 kW). A very large data centre comes close to 100 million watts (100 MW), or one-tenth of the output of a thermal power station. In fact, on top of the consumption required to run the servers, the electronic circuits must be cooled using air conditioning, chugging through more power. If the internet was a country it would rank sixth for electricity usage.
Aren’t there massive warehouses that are housing all of our data and chewing through power?
MT: Yeah, people tend to forget that all of their iPhone cloud storage is housed in massive storage farms in the desert of Nevada, as well as Arizona and Oregon. Apple's Reno site, that houses the iCloud server, sits on 345 acres of land and is constantly growing. Its construction is progressing so fast that it is now depending on a new electrical substation and power lines. However, Apple aims to create one of the greenest data centres in the world, drawing much of its power from solar panels and geothermal energy.
You’ve been commissioned to work on the upcoming Welcome to Wasteland exhibition, that deals with all forms of waste, including digital waste. Why were you guys approached and what have you done for this exhibition?
MT: Each year Kyle partners with Dale Hardiman of Friends and Associates, producing an event brand and website element which helps set a theme to the overarching exhibition.
KM: With an already keen interest in sustainability, Matt, myself and my partner who works for Breathe Architects – one of Australia’s leading sustainably driven firms – saw an opportunity to realise the design further by taking a greener approach to the web deliverable. This led to us creating a solar powered web server to host the website and by doing so we were able to abide by the principles and ethics of the very exhibition itself. Matt and I were able to continue this approach when designing the brand and exhibition design as well by choosing to make use of a portable, handheld and compact ink-jet printer (typically seen in a factory setting used to print serial codes or technical details of that nature).
MT: This ink-jet gun enabled us to print brand elements, sign writing, object labels directly onto the surface with zero waste. The idea came from initially thinking about different production methods that would minimise our environmental footprint. The thermo-printing that receipt printers use was a printing method we were thinking about using because it heats reactive paper to print without using any ink. But for what we needed it to do, that method was not really going to cut it. The ink-jet gun allows us to cut out the printer, shipping and handling of large reams of paper, the production of that paper, freight emissions and everything else related to the general print production cycle. Printing on demand with the gun also cuts down the waste and off-cut of materials because we use available surfaces already within the space.
Sending 20 emails a day for one year emits the same amount of CO2 as a car travelling 1000 kilometres.
If the internet was a country it would rank sixth for electricity usage.
Tell me more about this solar powered website! How does it work and how did you pull it off?
KM: So we can break up the green website design into two parts. Firstly we’ve got the website. We structured the website statically, so we didn’t use a database or CMS. We also dithered images, which is a form of intentionally applied noise used to compress grayscale images, as well as other compression methods. All in all we were able to produce an event website that is 80% lighter than the average, 600KB lighter in fact.
Secondly we have our solar powered server. Because of our sustainable web design approach, the website can be run on a tiny computer, that’s probably not even as advanced as your mobile phone. It needs roughly two to three watts of energy and is powered by a 120 watt solar PV system. This solar system will be on show at the exhibition, so you can come and check it out. Our plan, though, is for it to be stationed somewhere longer term in desirable conditions, like on the roof of my apartment.
Henry the Hoover was sourced via a local listing on gumtree, which was being sold for parts and came stripped of its motor. Aside from the strategic opportunity to make all things tech warm and personable, Henry was chosen based on its basic functionality: retractable cord storage, compact and a go getter (it has wheels).
What happens if there is no sun for a couple of days? Will the website go offline?
KM: Typically solar powered systems such as these have limited energy storage, so we’d expect the page to go down on occasion, perhaps even regularly, especially if we have long periods of cloud coverage. In the case of the website going offline the website will still be available via an RSS feed – RSS literally stands for Really Simple Syndication – that enables users to access the website in a standard format. So, because of the way we’ve built the website, it will actually cache each page so if you happened to return to the site and the website is offline, you’ll still be able to access the basic format.
Should we as digital consumers with websites all go out and buy solar panels?
KM: As consumers, perhaps a starting point would be to look into switching to greener hosting, many are powered by renewable energy. For every amperage that hosting platform GreenGeeks uses from the grid they invest three times that in renewable energy. DreamHost is another website host that have data centres that are powered by renewable sources and their cooling systems even use reclaimed water.
Furthermore, you can look at design and optimisation of the website. You can take a look at what weighted features you can replace with lighter alternatives. So for example, single images are greener than a set of rotating carousels. You can also set a better than average page size budget to help consider data weight at each project phase. The more you shave off in page size the better the performance and the smaller the site’s carbon footprint will be.