[GRRN] Forbes' Assessment of Computer Energy Consumption

RecycleWorlds (anderson@msn.fullfeed.com)
Thu, 20 May 1999 16:20:40 -0500

Forbes May 20, 1999

Being digital was supposed to mean less
demand for hard energy. It isn't turning
out that way.
Dig more coal—the PCs
are coming
By Peter Huber and Mark P. Mills
Amazon.com. Somewhere in America, a
lump of coal is burned every time a book
is ordered on-line.
The current fuel-economy rating: about 1
pound of coal to create, package, store
and move 2 megabytes of data. The
digital age, it turns out, is very
energy-intensive. The Internet may
someday save us bricks, mortar and
catalog paper, but it is burning up an
awful lot of fossil fuel in the process.
Under the PC's hood, demand for
horsepower doubles every couple of
years. Yes, today's microprocessors are
much more efficient than their
forerunners at turning electricity into
computations. But total demand for
digital power is rising far faster than bit
efficiencies are. We are using more
chips—and bigger ones—and crunching
more numbers. The bottom line: Taken
all together, chips are running hotter,
fans are whirring faster, and the power
consumption of our disk drives and
screens is rising. For the old
thermoelectrical power complex, widely
thought to be in senescent decline, the
implications are staggering.
About half of the trillion-dollar
infrastructure of today's electric power
grid exists to serve just two century-old
technologies—the lightbulb and the
electric motor. Not long ago, that meant
little prospect for growth in the power
industry. We have about as many motors
and bulbs as we need. "The long-run
supply curve for electricity is as flat as
the Kansas horizon," declared green guru
Amory Lovins in 1984.
While Lovins surveyed the prairies,
however, IBM and others were just
beginning to roll out serious numbers of
PCs. Today, worldwide annual production
stands at 50 billion integrated circuits
and 200 billion microprocessors (many of
those special-purpose controllers that
run things like car engines and

The infoelectric convergence is already
having a visible impact on overall
demand. At least 100 million nodes on
the Internet, drawing from hundreds to
thousands of kilowatt-hours per year,
add up to 290 billion kWh of demand.
That's about 8% of total U.S. demand.
Add in the electric power used to build
and operate stand-alone (unnetworked)
chips and computers, and the total
jumps to about 13%. It's now
reasonable to project that half of the
electric grid will be powering the
digital-Internet economy within the next


Energizing the Internet
Utilities sucked into the vortex of
the Internet

Read more:
By Peter Huber
From May 31, 1999 Issue

Peter Anderson
RecycleWorlds Consulting
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