Electrifying Our Information

As you are sitting there, reading this blog, try to imagine the path that this article took to reach you.  It was written on a computer, uploaded to a server that could be anywhere in the world, stored and kept ready for your request, and finally the information to display this article was sent to your computer.  These interactions can travel thousands of miles in milliseconds and are happening many, many times a second.    Now think about after you read this article and you are interested in finding out more about this topic, what are you going to do?  Google it.  Try to imagine the complex interaction that takes place in order for you to find a news article written about Google and their energy requirements.  This is the reason why our exponentially increasing rate of data transfer and storage is a very important factor to consider in our long term energy outlook.

Greenpeace claims that in just 10 years data centers will use nearly 2 trillion kWh of electricity.  That is more than France, Germany, Canada, and Brazil use today, combined!  As we approach an “internet-society” the amount of energy required to sort, store, and distribute the growing hoard of information will only increase.  We not only are connected to the internet by our PCs, laptops, and smart-phones, but we plan on incorporating the health care system and the power distribution system to the internet as well.  The U.S. is planning a $1.1 billion effort to connect the health care system to the internet could dramatically lower health care costs for patients because doctor’s could connect to patient’s previous medical records, search through previous similar cases, and collaborate world-wide.  Many of the current “smart-grid” ideas today connect the power sector to the internet in some form or fashion.  The general goal of the smart-grid is to allow for more integration of renewable sources of energy and bring the cost of electricity down.   While these two integrations of large systems with the internet are potentially great advances, the impact on the world through the energy requirement should be analyzed.  US physicist Dr. Wissner-Gross claims that each Google search results in 7 lbs of CO2 emissions.  While Google refutes this fact and claims only 0.2lbs, the fact is there is an impact.  Once again, there is always a tradeoff when any new technology or application is implemented.  The connection between the smart-grid and the data resources it will consume is a very interesting dynamic that should be looked into.  The smart-grid’s goal is to reduce emissions and incorporate more renewable energy sources into our electric grid, but how much energy will it require to operate.  This is another good lesson at slowing down and looking at all angles of an idea before deciding on its merits.  Lesson learned.

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