The explosive growth of Internet use also has increased the concern about the potential impact on energy demands. In a study released this year, some experts believe broadband technologies actually may help shift the global market to a more energy-productive and low-carbon economy.

Increased use of online activities such as teleworking and online shopping can reduce carbon emissions and deliver significant energy savings, according to the study by the Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI).

With a goal of investigating the link between broadband Internet usage and energy reduction, the study entitled Measuring the Energy Reduction Impact of Selected Broadband-Enabled Activities Within Households looked specifically at eight household-level activities that are enabled or enhanced by the use of broadband Internet access.

Replacing more energy-intensive conventional activities, the studied areas were telecommuting, using the Internet as a primary news source, online banking, e-commerce, downloading and/or streaming media (music and video), e-education, digital photography, and e-mail.

Assuming reasonable adoption of all eight activities, the report makes the claim that six countries featured in the study could achieve net energy savings equivalent to 2 percent of their total energy consumption.

The U.S. could generate annual net energy savings of about 336 million barrels of oil, equivalent to 2 percent of its total energy consumption, according to GeSI. France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the U.K. (EU-5) could generate annual net energy savings of 164 million barrels of oil, also equivalent to 2 percent of each country’s total energy consumption.

“The total savings in this report at first might seem small, but that is only because the eight activities we studied are a relatively small part of their respective economies,” explained John A. Laitner, who headed up the study and serves as director of economic and social analysis for the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE).

“Even at this scale, these relatively small activities may generate a larger benefit, equal to the total carbon dioxide emissions impact of the ICT (Information and Communication Technology) industry,” added Laitner. “The deployment of information and communication technology enabled practices and improvements can become a critical step toward a much more energy-productive and low-carbon economy.”

Telecommuting provided the largest energy benefit across the EU-5 and U.S., generating about 83 to 86 percent of net energy savings, respectively. Telecommuting practices may also have a significantly greater level of market benefit compared to other activities because additional benefits such as reduced driving time and more time with family and friends may accelerate market penetration to a greater degree than other ICT-related activities.

The areas of least savings were online news and e-education. In these cases, consumers are likely to continue old practices, such as reading a newspaper, while adopting new broadband-enabled activities.

Even larger savings may come from large-scale energy and infrastructure systems and feedback mechanisms enabled and coordinated through broadband technologies, according to the report. For example, increasingly popular home area networks (HANs) are being extended to bring “smart home” and a variety of home energy services quickly to market.

“This study reinforces the need to enact consistent policies and practices that can begin to deliver energy-efficiency benefits today and many years in the future,” said GeSI Chairman Luis Neves. “Greater use of the available and robust broadband infrastructure will continue to spur innovation and a greener economy while aiding the transition to a sustainable energy system.”

In 2008, GeSI published the SMART2020 study that found that large-scale, systems-enabled broadband and information and communication technologies could deliver a 15 percent reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions, saving billions of dollars worldwide by 2020. Building upon those findings, GeSI wanted to identify the key areas in this latest report where the ICT sector could make the biggest contribution to sustainability within normal household activities.

GeSI has 31 members representing leading companies and associations from the ICT sector around the globe. GeSI and member companies BT, Deutsche Telekom, Ericsson, and Verizon contracted with Yankee Group and the ACEEE to commission this study.