>last year doug posted a quip from Business week or Fortune about how much
>k-wattage is burned on email. the piece showed what amt of k-wattage
>burned the equivalent of a ton of coal or somesuch. apparently, doug
>discovered that in one month alone lbo had burned a ton of coal. anyone
>still have that email or know of the source of that ref?
Sorry, been away from the computer that has the file on it...
Forbes - June 23, 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
SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA EDISON, meet 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 telephones). Every last one of these chips runs on electric power. On its surface, where bits are incarnated as electrons, a chip runs at enormously high power densities-up to one-tenth those at the surface of the sun. Lucent, Nortel, Cisco, 3Com, Intel, AMD, Compaq and Dell have become the new General Electrics behind a resurgent demand for power.
Your typical PC and its peripherals require about 1,000 watts of power. An IntelliQuest study reports that the average Internet user is on-line 12 hours a week. (Most data relate to home users; business usage is very hard to pin down, but almost certainly is higher.) That kind of usage implies about 1,000 kilowatt-hours of electrical consumption in a year.
There are already over 50 million PCs in households, and 150 million more computers in businesses. Another 36 million are sold each year with 20 million going on the Internet.
And for every piece of wired hardware on your desk, two or three pieces of equipment lurk in the network beyond-office hubs and servers, routers, repeaters, amplifiers, remote servers and so forth. The heavy iron that powers a Schwab or Amazon typically requires a megawatt. There are already over 17,000 pure dot-com companies (Ebay, E-Trade, etc.). The larger ones each represent the electric load of a small village.
Getting the bits from dot-com to desktop requires still more electricity. Cisco's 7500 series router, for example, keeps the Web hot by routing an impressive 400 million bits per second, but to do that it needs 1.5 kilowatts of power. The wireless Web draws even more power, because its signals are broadcast in all directions, rather than being tunneled down a wire or fiber. The digital PCS network-still in its infancy-will need a projected 70,000 radio base stations within a few years and twice that in a decade. Each of those stations burns at least a couple of kilowatts. The wireless handheld market (next-generation Palm Pilots and such) will reach 20 million units in annual sales within a few years.
Individually, many of these boxes only sip power; handhelds now run for weeks on a couple of AAA batteries. Cisco's newest gigabit router, the 12000 series, can handle 16 times the bandwidth of its predecessor, with the same electric power appetite. But total demand for computational power is outrunning any efficiency gains. According to the Semiconductor Industry Association, today's state-of-the-art integrated circuit can contain 21 million transistors and run at 400 megahertz, on 90 watts of power; it will give way, in a decade or so, to an 1,800-megahertz/1,400-million-transistor chip that draws 175 watts. And even if Hewlett-Packard's Toronado and Nokia's Internet cell phones end up running on body heat, they'll pump bits in and out of the Web, driving power demands upstream.
Traffic on the Web has indeed been doubling every three months. About 17 million homes already have two or more PCs. Communicating chips are now migrating off the desktop. Electrolux recently announced its "Internet refrigerator," an embedded PC replacing the scribbled note and door magnet. GE has an Internet microwave oven. EmWare, a software company, is working with Sybase, 3Com and Micron to bring vending machines on-line to make stocking and management more efficient.
Just fabricating all these digital boxes requires a tremendous amount of electricity. The billion-dollar fabrication plants are packed with furnaces, pumps, dryers and ion beams, all electrically driven. It takes 9 kilowatt-hours to etch circuits onto a square inch of silicon, and about as much power to manufacture an entire PC (1,000 kilowatt-hours) as it takes to run it for a year. (We're counting just the things that really go into the box-chips, boards and so forth-not the water cooler or the rest of the surrounding infrastructure.) A typical fab is already a 10- to 15-megawatt electric beast-about as big as a steel minimill, electrically speaking. And there are at least 300 of these factories in the U.S. Collectively, fabs and their suppliers currently consume nearly 1% of the nation's electric output.
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 decade.
The global implications are enormous. Intel projects a billion people on-line worldwide. That's $1 trillion in computer sales-and another $1 trillion investment in a hard-power backbone to supply electricity. One billion PCs on the Web represent an electric demand equal to the total capacity of the U.S. today.
But won't all this new digital intelligence reduce energy demand in other ways? Telecommuting and e-mail, for example, reduce consumption in other sectors of the economy. Energy demand has indeed flattened somewhat in the transportation sector. Less warehousing, and the overall tuning of the economy, are cutting demand for gasoline, diesel and heating fuels. But not for electricity, which is generated mostly with coal (56%), nuclear (20%), hydro (10%) and gas (10%). Heating loads in winter are reduced by computers themselves, since the electricity that runs the chips ends up as heat dissipated out the back. But these gains are more than offset by the additional cooling loads computers impose in the summer.
Thus, despite years of dramatic improvement in lighting, cooling and heating efficiencies, there has been little if any reduction in total energy use per square foot in commercial office buildings. The typical home office gets set up in addition to the one downtown, not instead of. Canon's new digital X-ray machine, recently approved by the Food & Drug Administration, will replace millions of X-ray films and tens of thousands of machines-but it will also likely accelerate the deployment of X-ray machines in many more doctors' offices. These new units will be bandwidth hogs, too, as they pump high-resolution pictures across the Web in search of second opinions from distant experts. Overall, total electric consumption continues to grow about 3% a year-and more than half of that growth is attributable to the rise of the microprocessor.
Expect, as well, fundamental change in another aspect of the power grid: quality and reliability. The conventional grid tolerates power hiccups of a single cycle for 60-cycle power. With refrigerators, lightbulbs and ovens, a blip in the current is merely an inconvenience. With computers and routers, it can be a catastrophe.
That's why a company like American Power Conversion, of West Kingston, R.I., has seen revenues jump 70-fold in ten years by selling uninterruptible power supplies for everything from desktop machines to dot-com servers to routers and enterprise data centers. There's a parallel boom in the systems and electronics that keep power clean. Active Power of Austin, Tex. makes a flywheel-based electric storage system sized to isolate and protect entire office buildings and factories from "dirty" power. The 1.4 ton flywheels spin at 7700 rpm. American Superconductor of Westborough, Mass. uses a two megawatt superconducting magnet, weighing three-quarters of a ton, to do a similar job. It is inevitable that a lot more very heavy atoms will be deployed to keep our bits on their appointed rounds.
Futurists have been promising us an information highway, not unit trains loaded with coal. Fiber-optic cables, not 600-kilovolt power lines. We're going to get both.