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Power can't take the strain
The energy-sapping demands of new technology are stretching electricity suppliers to the limit
By Clayton Hirst
27 August 2000
Although the residents of St John's Wood will have little idea it's going on, some 25 metres below the wealthy north London suburb, engineers are busily digging a huge tunnel.
When it's finished, it will stretch to Elstree in Hertfordshire and will carry high-capacity National Grid cables directly into the capital. The tunnel will form a new artery into London to feed the burgeoning demand for electricity because, when the tunnel is complete in 2004, it is estimated that the demand for power will be up to 20 per cent higher than it is today.
London isn't alone in consuming more electricity. Almost every major developed city in the world is gobbling up more power. There are a variety of reasons for this demand the 24-hour culture, the proliferation of air-conditioning, the booming service economy. But almost all cities share a common reason for consuming more electricity the computer.
According to UK Government statistics, businesses are now using 10 to 20 per cent less energy on heating, lighting and cooling than they did five years ago. Energy consumed by office equipment mainly computers and their peripherals on the other hand has doubled with the internet explosion.
This demand has spawned a whole new industry designed to service companies' insatiable appetite for power, but concerns are growing whether the supply will meet the demand.
So, where exactly is the demand coming from? The first thing to point out is that on their own computers don't actually consume a great deal of electricity: 140 watts on average, or less than two standard light bulbs. But it's all the bits around computers which soak up the power such as servers.
The peripherals aren't necessarily found in the office. In London and Leeds hi-tech buildings are being constructed which point to where the future electricity demand will come from. These are "server farms" sometimes known as "internet hotels". The buildings centrally host all the hi-tech gadgetry which companies need to send and receive web pages across the internet.
As well as the racks of energy-guzzling servers, the rooms have to be maintained at a constant temperature with sophisticated air-conditioning systems.
Ian Williams, a consultant at technology research group DataMonitor, says that as broadband technology evolves, giving high-speed internet access, the demand for more data centres will rise. "With broadband, people will want more content and companies will need to invest in more data centres to meet the demand. Electricity consumption in areas such as London and Leeds will certainly increase," he adds.
There are plans, proposed by a raft of newly created companies such as TeleCity and DigiPlexto, to build 10 data centres in London. London Electricity, however, warns that in some parts of the capital the network isn't strong enough to supply such buildings. "In some cases we would ask the developer to bear the cost of upgrading the network before a building can be constructed. And in some cases an upgrade can sometimes take up to a year," says a spokesman.
Industry analysts also predict that the growth in mobile internet devices will further drain the electricity supply. "Overall, much more electricity will be used as WAP and eventually 3G will be both battery-powered and be based on permanent electrical connection," says Simon Pollard, a vice president at research group AMR.
But there are also signs that new advances in computer technology could actually save energy. The latest buzzword in computer software is ASP or application service provision. ASP allows business to do away with personal computers and instead access all their software from a centrally-located data centre via the internet.
Oracle, the US software giant, argues that if the concept takes off, companies will be able to rid their offices of servers and overall energy consumption will fall due to the economies of scale in having all their equipment grouped together in a central location.
The clear winners in this thirst for power are the power- generating companies. Alistair Gayne, an energy analyst at Credit Suisse First Boston, says: "In the UK the companies to benefit will be PowerGen and Innogy. Most firms that generate electricity just churn out the supply. But PowerGen and Innogy are marginal generators that generate when there is a bigger demand; essentially they are shaping the supply."
As hi-tech companies can lose literally millions if the power supply is broken for even a few seconds, a whole army of companies has also been formed to provide sophisticated hardware, software and energy-consulting services. These include the Nasdaq-listed American Power Conversion, which last year turned over $1.3bn (#860m).
But there are those who claim that the network and supply is not large and sophisticated enough to cope with the burgeoning demand.
In June, America's Silicon Valley had its first scare when it suffered a serious blackout. According to a senior energy economist, the UK's first electricity hiccup isn't far away.
Malcolm Grimston, a senior research fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, says: "There will be a power cut in the UK. Anyone in government who is presiding over the day when the food in everyone's freezers is ruined may well consider re-centralising power generation. There will be a huge political panic."
Mr Grimston argues that to guarantee a constant electricity supply, the country needs a handful of generators which stand idle only to be used two or three times a year at peak moments.
However, Mr Grimston says that under the current electricity trading arrangements "it's uneconomic to have generators which just supply on those few occasions".
While there are potential economic concerns at stake, experts are relatively happy about the environmental implications of increased electricity consumption.
The Energy Saving Trust says the use of office equipment is "one of the greatest wasters of energy", and points out that companies can reduce energy consumption by up to 65 per cent if office equipment is managed better. However, Friends of the Earth says that, despite the increased consumption, the UK is still on track to meet its CO2 emissions targets. This, says the pressure group, is partly due to the switch from coal-fired power stations to gas which now represents 25 per cent of electricity supply.
But even this massive increase in demand for power is not enough to save the British coal industry.
-- Martin Thompson (firstname.lastname@example.org), August 27, 2000