Energy Security and IT Futures

The Computing and Telecommunications industries are heavy investors in R&D in reducing the carbon footprint of the IT estate itself. However, the rate of deployment of IT shows still that energy consumption and heat output are still rising. Computers contribute around 2% of carbon output globally. We need to do more and the industry is playing a significant part.­­

However, many countries are faced later this decade with challenges to their environmental targets at the same time as meeting the still growing power requirements.

The UK is faced with some of its electricity generating capacity nearing end of life while new capacity is slow to arrive.

Some  concerns are expressed in private that the kind of meltdown that the US Eastern seaboard experienced a few years ago could happen in the UK. Publically this is always denied as a risk.

I express an interest, as my daughter, then 16, was visiting NY at the time of the blackout. I did my best to be the calm parent (failed!).

What concerns me is that the growth in electric vehicles and other devices may make energy consumption growth at the higher levels of expectation once the economy returns to stable growth.

Cloud Computing is often argued as a potentially significant contributor to the power targets through optimising the resource in the IT estate. Despite some marketing ‘greenwash’, I suspect that in the medium term this will be so.

However, if I build the type of large data centres needed to generate the savings on the IT estate. Then security of energy supply becomes a critical success factor.

Listening to folk in the electricity sectors, then micro generation and smart grids are the way forward. The observation I would make is that the best way to secure energy supply to a big data centre is to generate the supply locally, or that is what I hear from suppliers. If that can be done using solar or other sustainable sources, then so much the better.

However, is there not a systemic risk in having a large data centre and large power supply closely aligned? I write this on a day when Wikileaks has disclosed some global sites that are vital to US Security. I wonder how many Cloud Centres will be on that list in 5 years time, whether for cyber or conventional terrorist reasons.

Alongside this, one area of major advance over the last few years has been improved battery life and reduced consumption on portable devices. As far as I can see, this is expected to continue for years to come.

However, these gains have been made by using a range of advanced materials. While there is no imminent shortage ( in terms of global reserves) of any elements, notably in rare earths, security of supply may be a challenge this decade. It takes time to open up new sources, so growth in demand could create lags in supply. At the same time, some of the sources of these elements are in potentially unstable regions.

While unlikely in the short term, an outlier scenario could be an increase in energy consumption by user IT, due to supply issues of key elements, along with growth in usage driving higher needs for electricity generation at a time when grid capacity is under strain.

My gut feel is that the ‘Perfect storm’ is unlikely as of today.

However, the IT industry is reliant on the electricity supply chain.

When the Queen asked economists why they had missed the credit crunch, their answer was that they overlooked systemic risk.

Recently I sat in a meeting on energy security and IT barely made the discussion. At a session on Cloud Computing after that security of energy supply was never mentioned. The potential for energy saving was what was highlighted. That lack of dialogue can lead to overlooking systemic risk.

Merry Christmas!

Comments (6)

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  • 1
    sheka wrote on 10th Dec 2010

    quite true!

    however, one must take into consideration alternate energy sources, as described inventors such as nikola tesla, via re-thinking abstract ways pertaining to power generations. MY GUT feeling is that the power companies will be affected by such "inventions"

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  • 2
    Gordon Docherty wrote on 10th Dec 2010

    sheka - I totally agree. While there are still those out there who like to vociferously oppose even the notion of alternative energy supply, there has been much activity in this area with a great deal of attention given to the area of local (even personal) supply, an approach we should surely recognize in the computer industry (who, here, now doesn't have a "personal" computer and/or mobile phone - for those of us old enough to remember, such "personal" products were often being talked about as science fiction (or even fantasy) as late as the nineteen seventies.). For example, as little as two years ago, much scorn was being poured on the existence of "hydrinos" (Blacklight Power) from which energy could be derived via a chemcial process, yet there is now clear evidence emerging that strongly supports the existence of such hydrinos (most notably, independent replication by Rowan University and the the replication of extraordinary high-energy light emissions below 80 nm from hydrogen at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), previously thought to be impossible based on past theories, yet accurately predicted as a "signature" of hydrino formation. There is also much interest around electro-magnetic asymmetries, "Casimir" micro-cavities and even gravity-based generators. Of course, the cynics will say it all just a pipe dream and it is just not possible, but, then, they said that about so many other fields of human endevour - including personal computing and "the web", yet look where are now...

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  • 3
    Helen Gerling wrote on 13th Dec 2010


    I am so glad that somebody has voiced this finally. I have been thinking along similar lines for a couple of years. Though I think the likelihood of such a perfect storm is not a hig risk, it is certainly boardering on a medium risk. Given the high impact, doing nothing to mitigate such a risk is foolish. I do hope that somewhere someone is focusing on tangible energy solutions but given the delays in reducing carbon footprints etc I'm not so sure this is the case. And, as you say, if these new technologies rely on a rare material it does not adequately solve the problem.

    I also agree with your observations about cloud centres being a target, though I hadn't come to that conclusion myself yet. Even if these companies have their own live backup sites, which I imagine most do, an intelligent organisation would target all sites belonging to the same host company.

    Local renewable power supply to a local data centre, at least for essential systems, does sound like a good long term plan. Being able to convince the people that hold the purse strings of this, however, sounds like a very very difficult challenge.

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  • 4
    Graham Pooler wrote on 17th Dec 2010

    Whilst I welcome the high tech advances in reducing energy consumption, we must not forget the simple low tech approach of replacing cooling fans with, eg, large heat sinks. This has the added advantages of being quieter and one less electrical component to fail.

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  • 5
    Chris Yapp wrote on 27th Dec 2010

    This in today's telegraph outlines the UK problem fyi.

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  • 6
    Chris Yapp wrote on 29th Dec 2010

    And this outlines the rare earth issue from today's Reuters

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About the author
Chris is a technology and policy futurologist. Chris has been in the IT industry since 1980. His roles have spanned Honeywell, ICL, HP, Microsoft and Capgemini. He is a Fellow of the BCS and a Fellow of the RSA.

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December 2017