Smartphones: The SUVs Of the Information Superhighway

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We can "revitalize entire communities, and connect people to jobs," said President Obama a week ago in a discordant speech on the economy at Northwestern University calling for more roads and bridges. During the same week, the president's Secretary of Energy, Ernest Moniz, was talking at a less-noted event about infrastructure too, the one that is actually critical to our economic future - you know, the "information superhighway" system.

But Secretary Moniz wasn't focused on building more of it. The event was the Better Buildings Challenge - a "cornerstone" of the Administration's Climate Action Plan - dedicated to restraining the energy consumption of commercial buildings, and now the data centers at the heart of the information infrastructure. Several big data center operators joined DOE to pledge a 20% improvement in energy efficiency in order to, as the Secretary said, "cut America's energy use."

Energy politics have now invaded the tech world as they did years ago for planes, trains and automobiles. You need to know four things to understand why all our iPhoning and ‘youtubing' creates enormous energy demand as well as a high level of angst in the green energy community.

First, the information superhighway is a gas guzzler. At the center of the sprawling Web we find thousands of data centers. Many, especially those of tech titans, are the size of a Wal-Mart store, each filled with tens of thousands of computers. Billion dollar data centers are proliferating faster than billion dollar oil platforms. And they're getting bigger faster than oil platforms ever did or could. A typical enterprise-class data center clocks in at 40 to 50 megawatts (MW). The next generation will average 150 MW (each consuming enough energy for 100,000 homes). Greenpeace, and others, have toted up the world's total digital power demand: if the information ecosystem were a country it would rank ahead of Japan and Germany in power use. And the U.S. accounts for one-fourth of that.

Put a more personal way: bandwidth-gobbling smartphones are the SUVs of the information superhighway. The wall-charger for the phone isn't where the fuel use happens; it all occurs remotely and largely invisibly in data centers, on networks and in factories. Counting everything, streaming a baseball game to your iPhone uses more energy than driving your car to the ballpark. And the way most people get their mobile news now actually consumes more energy than the old trees-and-delivery-boy system. In fact, the inconvenient reality is that the iPhone-savvy, tweeting crowd of 400,000 at last month's People's Climate March in New York caused 200,000 pounds of coal to be burned, remotely, that one day.

Which brings us to the second fact: on average, digital kilowatt-hours come from the same sources that supply everything else. In America that's 75% hydrocarbons, roughly equally from coal and shale gas. Since electricity accounts for 30 to 50% of a data center's operating costs, most are located where power is cheap. Building them in places such as Oregon, Iowa, and North Carolina where power is cheap-because of big dams, or a mix of big coal, gas or nuclear plants, depending on the state - yields savings of about $200 million per data center over its operating life, compared to locating in, say, California or New York.

Enter politics: if a company uses a fraction of such operational savings to invest in wind or solar farms, it can take the Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) and bolt them onto grid-connected data centers. Win win. In this way businesses like Google and Microsoft buy green creds while their hardware hums on cheap power that is available 24x7 to keep the smarts in smartphones always on - which, it should be self-evident, isn't possible from wind and sun.

If tech's titans were candid here, they'd acknowledge these realities of economics and physics. All those power plants fuelled by coal, fracked gas and uranium are vital for cheap always-on power. And this is where the politics gets tricky: these companies want taxpayer-funded subsidies for expensive green energy that is ill-suited for power behemoths that must run continually. It bears noting that Germany got ahead of America in this green subsidy experiment, and has now returned to building coal plants.

Third, improving efficiency for computing and communications will only increase energy consumption. Secretary Moniz, a physicist, surely knows this. When engineers make more bytes possible per watt-hour it's the equivalent of adding lanes to a highway, which, as everyone knows, only causes traffic to go up. It is precisely because computers have grown so energy-efficient that the world is now populated with tens of thousands of data centers. A single Google data center operating at 1980 efficiency would consume as much electricity as Manhattan, and your iPhone would be bigger than a house. As data efficiency increases, so does demand.

Which brings us to the fourth point: digital energy demand is exploding. Over 2 billion cell phones will ship globally this year, of which the majority will be smartphones. A smartphone generates 50 times the data traffic of a cell phone. Wireless traffic is thus forecast to grow at a 60% annual clip through 2018, utterly swamping efficiency gains. And it's not just smart phones that will drive up data traffic; how about the Internet of Everything?

Cisco tells us global data traffic is already in the era of the zetabyte, an incomprehensible number, and on track to triple in a few years. For scale context: three zetas of dollar bills stacked up would go to the sun and back one million times. So consider that in physics, to simplify, there is no free lunch and all bytes are electrons.

These undeniable facts are, inconvenient -- but acknowledging them publicly has created big problems for the tech industry. We saw for example that the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) postion in opposing forced mandates (and subsidies) to push more green power onto state power grids caused some of its high-profile tech members -- Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Facebook, Microsoft, Yelp - to all bolt.

Citizens looking to do the digital equivalent of ride a bicycle to work should eschew smartphones and stick to texting on feature-free cell phones. As for those looking to divest from carbon-intensive industries, they might start with Alibaba given its reliance on massive data centers all powered by China's 80% coal-fired grid.

Someone said that data is the new oil. Not so. Data is the world's ascendant currency, both literally and figuratively, used everywhere and increasingly in and for everything. The info infrastructure is packed with technologies that process, route, store, sift and analyze data and all consume energy. In fact, the energy used by computers to ‘mine' Bitcoins rivals the total amount of fuel the global mining industry burns to dig up physical gold. (Credit University of California at San Diego's Michal Taylor for mapping the proliferation of bitcoin computers.)

The digital world today looks a lot like the automobile world of 1954. Back then, increased fuel consumption was a sign of economic growth, not a problem. And, as with cars, it may take a half-century before growth in fuel use peaks on the information superhighways. Imagine the clash of cultures should the EPA propose, say, Café-style fuel standards for iPhones.

Meanwhile, it's fortuitous that an energy-hungry tech boom just happens to coincide with the technology revolution in American shale fields that is driving down the cost of energy. That's a real win-win, and just maybe a cause to celebrate.


Mark Mills is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and CEO of the Digital Power Group. 

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