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Commentary By Robert Bryce

Dig More Coal. The iPad is Coming

Back in 1999, Peter Huber and Mark Mills wrote a piece for Forbes titled “Dig more coal – the PCs are coming.” That article, and subsequent pieces written by Huber and Mills, made clear their belief that increased use of electronic equipment, from personal computers to cell phones, was going to mean dramatic increases in electricity demand.

“The digital age, it turns out, is very energy-intensive,” they wrote. “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.”

Huber and Mills were immediately subjected to a series of attacks from advocates of “green” energy including Amory Lovins and Joe Romm. Lovins, the Colorado-based energy prognosticator called Mills a "liar." As part of his response, Romm, who now works as a blogger for the left-leaning Center for American Progress, wrote an article which lauded Enron -- yes, Enron -- for its work at improving energy efficiency for corporate customers. Romm went on to say that “we can count on the Internet revolution to help us protect and preserve our environment.” And in 2001, one media outlet sympathetic to Lovins and Romm denounced Huber and Mills as “lackeys of the power industry.”

Today, approximately a decade after Huber and Mills pointed out that the Internet Age would spur global demand for electricity, the pair are getting backing from an unlikely ally: Greenpeace.

On March 30, the day before Apple released its newest gadget, the iPad, Greenpeace released a report which said that devices like the iPad will increase electricity demand because they depend on dispersed data centers and other infrastructure that is known as “cloud computing.” This increasing reliance on the “cloud,” by companies like Apple, Google, Amazon, and others, has resulted in a huge increase in construction of vast temperature-controlled warehouses filled with servers that then deliver video, news, and other data to consumers via the Web.

The Greenpeace report itself is a rather muddled mess. For instance, the numbers in the first table of the report are mislabeled and key terms are not defined. The report also refers to nuclear power as “dirty energy.” But the report gets the big picture correct when it comes to the proliferation of consumer electronics and what that will mean for electricity demand. Greenpeace projects that by 2020, electricity use associated with information technology will more than triple when compared to 2007 levels. Given this huge increase in electricity use, Greenpeace says that if companies that rely on cloud computing “want to provide a truly green and renewable cloud, they must use their power and influence to not only drive investments near renewable energy sources, but also become involved in setting the policies that will drive rapid deployment of renewable electricity generation economy-wide, and place greater R&D into storage devices that will deliver electricity from renewable sources 24/7.”

Of course, Greenpeace has been advocating renewables for a long time. But the key point here is rising electricity demand. And electricity demand is growing faster than that of any other form of energy. Between 1990 and 2007 electricity generation jumped by nearly 68%. During that same time frame, demand for oil increased by 25.3% and coal demand increased by 42.5%.[1]

How much of that demand is coming from computers, cell phones, and other such devices? No one knows for sure. In their 1999 article in Forbes, Huber and Mills claimed that 8% of US electricity was being consumed by the Internet and Internet-related devices. In 2007, a report from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory estimated that computer servers were consuming about 1.2% of all US electricity. The study also found that the amount of electricity used by those servers doubled between 2000 and 2005. Last May, the International Energy Agency estimated that 15% of residential electricity use is due to what it called “electronic devices.” And it estimated that “the energy consumed by information and communications technologies as well as consumer electronics will double by 2022 and increase threefold by 2030.”

I have written about the surging electricity demand related to electronics several times. In 2000, I wrote about the feud between Huber/Mills and Lovins/Romm and discussed the various estimates of electricity demand related to the Internet. In my 2008 book, Gusher of Lies, I discussed growing electricity demand due to what I called the “Google Effect.”

The actual amount of electricity being used by the Internet and therefore, by devices like the iPad, iPhone, BlackBerry, etc, is not important to Mills. The important thing, he says, is to understand that increased use of information technology means more demand for electricity. When I talked to him last week, he was heartened to see that Greenpeace has finally come around to his point of view. “Facts are stubborn things,” he told me. “The fact is the Internet is consuming a lot of electricity and it will consume more in the future. That’s a fact. It’s nice to get the acknowledgment even if it is ten years later.”

Mills went on, saying “Bits are electrons. That means it’s energy. And it’s highly ordered energy. If you add order, you use energy. And there is no more orderly form of energy than information,” he said. “Adding order requires consuming energy.”

Despite its many flaws, the Greenpeace report provides essential reading. The growth in electricity demand from technologies like the iPad is only part of the broader surge in demand for electric power. And that demand will undercut any political effort to drastically reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Indeed, forecasters see huge increases in electricity demand on the horizon. Last May, the Energy Information Administration estimated that global demand for electricity in 2030 will total nearly 32 trillion kilowatt hours, that’s a 54% increase over current levels.

Like it or not, much of that electricity will be generated by burning coal because that’s the cheapest, most available fuel, particularly in developing countries like China, India, South Africa, and others. And as those countries continue their development, a key element of their growth will depend on their uptake of computers, mobile phones, and Internet-based technologies. Thus, to paraphrase Huber and Mills’ 1999 article: The iPad is coming. It’s time to dig more coal.

This piece originally appeared in Energy Tribune

This piece originally appeared in Energy Tribune