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No, your phone doesn't use as much electricity as a refrigerator

OAK BROOK - SEPTEMBER 24: People compare new Energy Star rated major refrigerators at a Sears store September 24, 2010 in Oak Brook, Illinois. 

Could it possibly be true that watching videos on my smartphone uses as much electricity as two refrigerators?

“This is an example of a claim that sounds interesting, but really has no basis in fact,” says Jonathan Koomey, a research fellow at the Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance at Stanford University.

Koomey has devoted years of his professional career to fighting this refrigerator analogy. It first came up more than a decade ago, by the same author, then making the claim that a Palm Pilot used the same electricity as a fridge.

Koomey says fighting it again now is pretty frustrating, “I’d rather not have to spend time rehashing this stuff.” But, the claim is back. So Koomey is back; figuring out just how much electricity goes into making and using my smartphone.

By his calculation, it’s about 60 kilowatt-hours.

Mark Mills, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and the author of the phone-equals-refrigerator claim, estimates it’s closer to 700 kilowatt-hours.

Mills is author of a report called The Cloud Begins with Coal, sponsored by the mining and coal industries. He says he wants to get people thinking about how much electricity these devices use. And he doesn’t think the controversy around the refrigerator analogy distracts people from his bigger point.

“The debate makes it an interesting conversation, like we’re having,” says Mills.

He stands by his calculations and his main assertion: “It is accurate: it uses a lot of electricity. Now if someone were to say, it’s not equal to a refrigerator or equals half a refrigerator or a tenth of a refrigerator, that’s still a big number.”

Why use this analogy again? Why compare a phone to a fridge, when Mills got so blasted the first time?

“If I came up to you and remarked to you that there is a one-headed cat around the corner from your house you would be totally uninterested,” says Bruce Nordman, a research scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory*, “but if I said there was a three-headed cat you’d be amazed that it exists and want to go see it; so these fantastical assertions naturally attract people’s attention, whether or not they are real.”

Nordham says the idea that our phones use as much energy as a fridge is basically that three-headed cat; it’s not real. And still, these things get picked up, and passed around.

Which raises another question -- why? 

“Thinking about a smartphone, a tiny small device, that sits in our pocket using the same amount of energy as a huge refrigerator, seems so amazing that we just have to share us with someone else,” says Jonah Berger, a marketing professor at the Wharton school and author of "Contagious: Why Things Catch On." “It’s a neat little factoid that makes us look smart, even if in this case, it’s not actually true.”    

He says the controversy around it helps makes it sticky and it taps into a broader conversation about the environment. “If everyone is talking about the environment, they are looking for something to add to that conversation,” Berger says. “We all know that gas prices are up, what's there to say that’s new?  But if I can plug in a new fact to that conversation, it’s going to get talked about a lot.”

Even if that fact isn’t factual.


*CORRECTION: The original version of this story misspelled the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The text has been corrected.

About the author

Adriene Hill is the senior multimedia reporter for LearningCurve.

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