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posted 06/06/01 12:OO P.M. EST

Wattage Where It's Needed
New York Times Editorial/Op-Ed June 6, 2001
By Roger Anderson
Columbia University, New York City

 President Bush's energy plan, to its credit, takes on in a coherent way all of the supply and demand elements that make up the nation's energy system, something not attempted since the Carter administration. And as the long view demands, the plan calls for a national system of power transmission - a national electricity grid. Our increasing use of computers, requiring ever more electricity, makes this grid an absolute necessity.

Historically, demand for electricity jumped after each of three technological breakthroughs: lights and motors in the early 1900's, air conditioning in the 1950's, and the rise of personal computers and the Internet in the 1980's and 1990's. Many Americans are unaware of this last enormous surge in electricity use, and the current experience in California suggests we are not ready to meet what is sure to be continuing growth in demand. But a country with an information-based economy cannot afford unreliable supplies of electricity.

More than $50 billion in new transmission lines alone will be required to connect the country's regional transmission lines into an integrated whole, and computerized controls will have to be very sophisticated. A glaring omission in the Bush plan is its failure to supply financing to develop these computer systems.

There are nine separate and unconnected power grids in the United States today. Excess electricity from one region cannot be easily transported to satisfy shortages in another. Because the Bush plan to connect the grids involves taking land by eminent domain, some will find it scary, just as the interstate highway system must have been for some when it was proposed. And the regions with the most stable electric supply may not readily see what they have to gain.

But the national grid is a necessity if we are to solve the problem of local shortages. We have plenty of generation capacity in North America, but with energy-hungry computer equipment concentrated more in some regions than in others, local shortages are likely to increase. California's difficulties could spread to other parts of the country. New York's electricity industry, for example, has striking similarities to California's. Both states have been slow to build new power plants and were caught off guard in the last year as demand jumped. Both depend heavily on natural gas to run their generators, leaving them vulnerable to soaring gas prices. Both have deregulated their electricity markets so they no longer control the price of power.

The energy problem has sneaked up on us because the personal computer that is attached to the Internet uses most of its power in ways not seen by the consumer - through servers, routers and other trafficking infrastructure located many miles away from the consumer in gigantic, air-conditioned warehouses called server farms. The facts about some of this little noticed energy use are startling.

In 1995 there were 20,000 servers in the world. Today there are six million. Just one new server farm, proposed for the economic development zone of the South Bronx, will draw more than twice as much power as the entire World Trade Center complex. Forty-six such developments proposed for New York and Westchester County over the next four years will increase the total electricity demand on Con Edison by 4 percent.

These servers are connected to about 200 million personal computers around the world. And although the power efficiency of the PC continues to improve with each new generation, the information trafficking volume is increasing even more dramatically. Wireless technology, too, is contributing to the nation's electricity demand. According to one study, a Web-enabled Palm Pilot uses as much electricity as a heavy-duty refrigerator.

The Bush plan's great failure is its lack of financing for research and development for a national grid. A command-and-control system of great scope and reliability will be required to distribute electricity quickly and efficiently. Developing it makes updating our antiquated air traffic control system look like child's play.

It is not a matter of simply joining the systems that run the nine regional grids. As the Pentagon found out in trying to integrate computer systems for control across a whole theater, and NASA learned while putting together smaller systems for the International Space Station, predictability declines as the integration tasks become larger and larger. Breakdowns will occur that have not been foreseen from the experience with the smaller grids.

There is no holding pattern in the electric power grid. It will take only six one-hundredths of a second for power generated in Washington State to be consumed by that server farm in the South Bronx. The computerized control for this kind of system is unlike anything that currently exists in the commercial world.

As California's leaders can attest, those in control will pay a political price if demand gets ahead of supply. Failing to help develop the national power grid would be a serious misstep for the Bush administration.

Roger Anderson is director of the Energy Research Center at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University.

. . .

related story:
LDEO'S Anderson Assesses
National Energy Consumption,
Offers Mixed Review of Bush Energy Plan

 

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