Oracle/Barbara Gordon

Oh my goodness, her carbon footprint is colossal.

Oracle is a superhero in the DC Universe who works alongside Batman to help subdue many supercriminals. While once a street-crime-fighter herself, the Joker shot her through the spine and paralyzed her. But she has continued the fight. She’s a computer genius who created and runs the most powerful computers in the world. Her computers calculate answers to Batman’s insane requests within milliseconds. She is basically a one-woman combination of Google, Amazon, and Wikipedia. Get ready, these numbers are about to get ridiculous.

I realize that the name “Oracle” is going to be a little confusing here, because it’s also the name of a real-life huge technology company. Comic book Oracle’s alter-ego is Barbara Gordon, so for simplicity, I’ll use that name, too.

Electricity use is going to dominate Oracle/Barbara Gordon’s carbon footprint. It takes a surprising amount of electricity to power server farms. My first inclination was to use Google as a decent real-life analog, but a data scientist friend of mine suggested that Amazon Web Services might be closer. We’re going to look at Amazon, Google, and Wikipedia as real-life analogs for Oracle/Barbara Gordon.

Electricity Use
According to Amazon’s sustainability page, they use renewable energy sources to power 25% of their global infrastructure, which totals to 2,152 megawatts, or MW (for reference, the average American household draws around 0.001 MW). This means that Amazon draws around 18,850,000,000 kWh per year.

Aside: This is the point at which analogies break down. I could tell you that 18,850,000,000 kWh is about the same amount of energy consumed by 1,750,000 American homes, but even that number is too big to really understand. I could say that it’s roughly the same amount of energy consumed by all of Washington DC, but does anyone have a good intuitive understanding of that amount of energy? The point is, this is a crazy amount of electricity.

I was really surprised to learn that Google draws much, much less electricity than Amazon. According to Google’s records, and confirmed by Cameron-Cole, Google’s power use for 2012 was around 3,325,000,000 kWh.

Wikipedia’s energy use turned out to be the most elusive number. While I couldn’t find any hard data, I was able to determine that they have at least 290 servers. According to a few sources, a single high-end server draws around 850W. So we’ll estimate that Wikipedia uses 2,160,000 kWh per year, just a tiny fraction of its bigger cousins Google and Amazon.

If Oracle/Barbara Gordon is a one-woman version of these huge companies, to calculate her carbon footprint we need to figure out where that electricity is coming from (the footprint gets worse if the electricity comes from burning coal and gets better if it comes from renewables, like solar).

In the DC Universe, Gotham City is a proxy for Chicago (while Metropolis stands in for New York City). Chicago gets its electricity primarily from nuclear and coal. If we use the EPA’s measured carbon emissions coefficient for Chicago, then this means that if Oracle/Barbara Gordon was more similar to Amazon, her carbon footprint would be:

Emissions = 28,494,534,342 lbs CO2e

And if Oracle/Barbara Gordon was more similar to Google, then her carbon footprint would be:

Emissions = 5,025,543,865 lbs CO2e

And if Oracle/Barbara Gordon was more similar to Wikipedia, then her carbon footprint would be:

Emissions = 3,264,883 lbs CO2e

Ok, so these numbers are a little terrifying. At the high end, Oracle/Barbara Gordon has a carbon footprint equal to approximately 500,000 average Americans. 500,000 is a lot of people. If we had 500,000 Oracle/Barbara Gordons, that’d be terrifying, too. Mostly to criminals.

Her carbon footprint isn’t very good, especially for a superhero who’s trying to save the world. It’s lucky for us that Oracle/Barbara Gordon and the DC Universe have their own version of a booming tech-company, Wayne Enterprises, that likely runs on renewable energies. Let’s assume this breakdown:

50% nuclear – she needs a large baseload to make sure everything stays up and running
25% hydroelectric – Wayne rebuilt the Gotham reservoir, so he gets a cut of that power
10% solar – this might be high because Gotham is always so dark
10% wind – this might be low, because Gotham is always pretty windy
5% geothermal – one word: caves

While these energy sources are all undoubtedly cleaner, their carbon footprint isn’t zero because we still need materials to build them and their required infrastructure. We can use numbers reported by the IPCC to figure out the long-term carbon footprint of using this blend of energy. With our clean energy, if Oracle/Barbara Gordon was similar to Amazon, her carbon footprint would be:

Emissions (Amazon) = 1,320,926,006 lb CO2e

And if Oracle/Barbara Gordon was similar to Google, her carbon footprint would be:

Emissions (Google) = 232,969,997 lb CO2e

And if Oracle/Barbara Gordon was similar to Wikipedia, her carbon footprint would be:

Emissions (Wikipedia) = 151,351 lb CO2e

The Final Analysis
Oracle/Barbara Gordon is definitely a contender for the superhero with the worst carbon footprint. Even with a staggeringly clean set of energy sources, her carbon emissions would still be around:

Oracle/Barbara Gordon = 151,000 – 1,000,000,000 lb CO2e

While these numbers do, in fact, have too many zeroes, it’s also important to note that most companies (like Amazon, Google, and Wikipedia) offer tremendous services to millions/billions of people. So, per capita, their carbon footprints are considerably better. To help distribute the carbon emissions, Oracle/Barbara Gordon might want to take a page out of many government books and just buy time on Amazon’s server farms.

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