Monday, April 21, 2008

Why Alternative Energy Makes Sense for Technology Companies

Energy and information. They are inexorably linked in our virtualized business world. In fact, our ability to provide enough energy may be the undoing of the cyber world as surely as the byproducts of energy production may be the undoing of our modern physical world. Think global warming has nothing to do with Business 2.0? Think again.

We tend to think of energy limitations and dirty, smelly, messy, polluting energy sources as legacies of the industrial age. Now that we have entered the information age, the seamy side of business and consumer life should be abating. This should be especially true in the online world. It seems so pristine and post-industrial. Just click open your browser and you have instant transportation to anywhere in the world to communicate, observe and transact business. How can a world of belching smokestacks and filthy rivers be in any way related to this?

Our online world is a world of illusion. It's not just virtual spaces that are created as alternate universes. It's everything. We think in terms of PCs, wireless access points, fiber optic strands stretching around the world with occasional routers directing traffic, and Web servers somewhere out there. In the privacy of our offices, or while immersed in notebook computers on restaurant table tops, it all seems so highly efficient and low energy. Efficient? Perhaps in the organizational sense. Low energy? Not a chance.

In order for us to visit a museum in Paris or get stock quotes from New York using nothing but battery power, Gigawatts are being expended on our behalf. The WiFi hot spot we're connected to needs at least a few watts to transmit and receive. It is fed by a router that uses more electricity. All those routers, and there are many, between source and destination are each sucking fractional kilowatts from the grid. At the far end, a Web server or server farm processes our request and responds with the data files we're seeking. Ever catch a chill in a server room? Probably not unless you've had a power failure in January.

But that's just a part of the picture. There are more servers. Lots and lots of servers that help us find what we're looking for in the first place. Google is a multi-Megawatt power sink, with most of it being lost to heat rejection. All that heat needs an equally powerful cooling system to ensure that the waste BTUs are ejected from the building before they melt the processors.

Add to this the industrial world of manufacturing that actually makes all those computers, servers, displays and batteries, and you've got a huge energy requirement for technology that seems low energy when you only look at one piece of the system at a time. Where does all that energy come from? Belching smokestacks mostly. Perhaps not so visibly belching smoke these days. The EPA has done a good job in cleaning up the smelly and acidic atmospheric emissions. The Cuyahoga River hasn't caught fire in decades. In fact, most of our waterways look pretty clean at a glance. But we're still burning coal and most of our electronic waste is still being tossed in landfills for future generations to deal with.

The majority of us don't come home from work with grimy faces anymore, so we don't feel dirty. The pollution we're creating is more insidious. Carbon Dioxide is replacing smog as the instrument of our demise, if we choose to simply ignore it and continue as-is. A few decades from now we might just be asking why it's so hot outside the server room.

What we want from business today is speed. We want instant transactions, instant access to the World's library of everything ever written, and high definition video downloaded as fast as possible. That speed comes at the price of power. Power itself comes at a price, and it's going up. Nuclear power was first promoted as too cheap to meter. Now we're wondering if we can afford to build any more reactors and deal with their radioactive waste products. Fusion power was 50 years away fifty years ago. It still is. There's still coal, oil and natural gas, at least for awhile. Sequestering their carbon emissions may prove so expensive we'll quickly become energy limited or take our chances on a toasty future.

Another approach is to face the music and begin generating the increasing levels of power we need from non-polluting resources. This should be a national and worldwide agenda, but companies can go ahead and get control of their power supplies before the politicians stop bickering. The best prospects are wind, water and solar. The best of these for most companies is solar. That nice big flat roof on your building is perfect for a solar panel farm. By connecting it to the grid, you don't have to worry about local energy storage and your peak power production will be during the mid-day, which is normally the time of peak power consumption. Google has "seen the light" already and is installing solar panels at their facility in Mountain View, California.

Colocation facilities seem like a natural match for alternative energy sources of all types. They are electricity intensive, already have backup batteries and inverters to deal with momentary grid interruptions, and require diesel generators to pick up the load during catastrophic power failures. But site such a facility near a hydro dam, especially a private one, or with enough land to support windmills, plus the solar arrays, and a colo might become energy independent. Perhaps even to the point of not needing diesel backup at all.

Far from being independent of the limitations of industrial age power sources and their environmental effects, higher technology companies are exacerbating the problem. We'll have to start thinking in terms of contributing to the energy demands of the coming decades if we don't want to find ourselves stifled by limited power availability or damaging the world we want to live in.

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