Buy something on the Internet, burn a lump of coal

In a cruelly ironic twist, the same high-tech industry growth that has fueled the expanding California economy also appears to be partly to blame for the state’s power crisis. Why? Because technology companies – and in fact any company that is a big user of computers – are a major drain on the electrical power grid. Although the exact size of that drain is up for debate, it’s not likely to do anything but grow, as technology becomes a part of virtually every sector of the North American economy.

California’s energy crisis, which has brought the state to the brink of rotating blackouts and driven gigantic power producer Southern California Edison to default on billions of dollars in financial commitments, obviously has a number of causes. Among them are the mishandling of power industry deregulation, which created a critical shortfall in generating capacity, and the effect of sky-high natural gas prices.

But the central problem has been too much demand for power, and the technology industry is a key part of that problem. As one consultant puts it: “A lump of coal is burned every time a book is ordered on-line.” That may not be literally true, but the computers and other devices associated with the tech industry all draw electrical power, some of them quite a lot. The “server farms” and “telco hotels” that many companies use – warehouses filled with Web-hosting computers and switches – are the biggest culprits.

According to a power analyst with the local public utility in San Francisco, a 100,000-square-foot server warehouse would draw enough power to heat 100,000 homes, largely because such farms require sophisticated cooling and ventilation systems. The type of chip-fabrication facility – or “fab” – that has sprung up all over Silicon Valley is an even bigger power hog: some estimates are that even a small facility, of which there are more than 300 in California alone, sucks as much power as a small steel mill.

In the U.S. midwest, server farms are being built that require 250 watts per square foot of power, or about 25 times the demand from a regular office building. One Toronto technology company, renovating an older office building to serve as its headquarters, told the property manager that it would need 600 amps worth of power for the floor holding the servers that would run its data and phone network. The company said there was less than 600 amps worth of service for the entire 10-storey structure.

Technology consultant Mark Mills, who with partner Peter Huber publishes a newsletter about the digital power business that is affiliated with technology guru George Gilder, has been warning for some time that the computer industry is pushing up demand for power. “It takes electrons to move bits,” the two wrote in a recent commentary. The Silicon Valley “campuses” of tech leaders Oracle and Sun Microsystems – which has six sub-campuses – each consume as much power as a small steel mill, they say.

Mr. Mills and Mr. Huber have come under fire for some of their assumptions. They have said that power consumption from technology such as computers, scanners, printers and so on accounts for as much as 13 per cent of the entire demand for power in the United States. After that statistic that was used by the George W. Bush campaign, however, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory said that according to its research the real figure is actually closer to 1 per cent.

Whatever the exact number is, the demand for power is only likely to increase, industry watchers say. According to the California-based Electric Power Research Institute, demand for electricity in Silicon Valley rose by more than 12 per cent in the 12 months ended in August of last year – or four times the rate of growth for the country as a whole.

On top of the actual demand itself is the fact that tech companies, particularly those with “mission-critical” uses such as microchip fabrication or Web hosting want uninterruptible power. Power companies have gotten used to supplying power to traditional manufacturers, who can stop or idle their plants if the power is not available, and so rely on “interruptible service” contracts as a way of balancing the rising demand.

“The current electrical system was not ever designed for the Internet economy,” Karl Stahlkopf, a vice president at the Electric Power Research Institute, told the New York Times. “Anything chip related is a tremendous Achilles’ heel.” Is it any surprise that one of the companies Bill Gates has invested in – Capstone Turbine – makes micro-turbines for on-site power generation? Silicon Valley companies could become big customers if California’s current electricity problems continue.