News Archive

posted 06/04/01

LDEO'S Anderson Assesses National Energy Consumption, Offers Mixed Review of Bush Energy Plan
By James Devitt

The 2001 Bush Administration's energy plan, which contains 105 initiatives ranging from loosening regulations on oil and gas exploration to tax credits for fuel-efficient cars, contains "thought-provoking ideas - both good and bad," said Roger Anderson, director of the Energy Research Center at the Earth Institute's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

"The Bush 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," said Anderson. "This is the first time such a plan has been put forth in national policy circles since the Carter Administration in the late 1970s. All in all, it is a good debate that is much needed in this country."

However, Anderson noted some shortcomings in the plan, which was released on May 17.

"The plan calls for development of a national transmission network to deliver electricity, but doesn't supply funding for research and development into such a system," said Anderson. "There are nine separate and disconnected power grids in the United States today. Excess electricity from one region cannot be easily transported to satisfy shortages in any of the other regions, and many states like it like that.

"The Bush plan to connect them into a national transmission network is both necessary and scary, much like the interstate highway network must have been when President Dwight Eisenhower first proposed it in the 1950s," Anderson added. "With a national grid, we can solve local shortages. But we are a long way from realizing this ideal and need to commit resources to developing such a system."

Anderson also praised the Bush plan's critics, who advocate a greater focus on conservation than the president's blueprint calls for.

"All sides on the political front are right - we must both increase supply and increase efficiency and conservation in order to see a future where the global energy system is again in efficient equilibrium," said Anderson.

Anderson said the nation's energy needs are unlikely to diminish any time soon. The rise of the personal computer and the Internet have spurred electricity consumption across the nation, most notably in California, contributing to the state's energy crisis. These difficulties could spread to other parts of the country, including New York City.

"Unlike a television and other home and office electronics, personal computers that are attached to the Internet use most of their power invisibly‹in servers, routers and other trafficking infrastructure not seen by the consumer," said Anderson. "California is only the first to experience this in the form of an energy crisis in 2001 because it is the heaviest consumer of electricity in the country."

Anderson noted that spikes in electricity use followed the introduction of three technological breakthroughs: light and motors in the early 1900s, air conditioning in the 1950s and the rise of personal computers and the Internet in the 1980s and 1990s. However, while the United States has been able to absorb earlier demands of electricity, the use of electrical power by high-tech devices continues to grow. Anderson cites the following developments to bolster his conclusion:

  • There were 20,000 servers in the world in 1995; today, there are six million servers for 200 million personal computers.
  • The amount of power required to push a single byte of information across the World Wide Web is cut in half every 18 months, but the number of bytes traveling the Web is doubling every 12 months.
  • Electricity consumption per home equipped with a personal computer connected to the Web is increasing by 8 percent a year.

In addition, Anderson says the rise of wireless technology is contributing to the nation's electricity demand. "A web-enabled Palm Pilot uses as much electricity as a heavy-duty refrigerator," said Anderson.

Analyzing previous research, Anderson cites specific surges in California's electricity demand to illustrate how high technology is sapping the state's energy supply:

  • In the past 20 years, electricity demand in California has grown 2 percent each year while there has not been a commensurate increase in power generation.
  • Electricity consumption in the Silicon Valley is growing three times faster than anywhere else in California.
  • The use of power by California-based Oracle and Sun Microsystems in 2000 amount to a 7-percent increase from 1999 levels; by contrast, industrial manufacturing has had a 10-percent drop in electricity consumption since 1998.

"Electricity, the primary energy source of the future, is responsible for many new technologies, but not without extracting a price from the population," Anderson said. "A new global electricity grid similar to the global Internet and Zero Emission Power Plants that are relatively small in size and cost for their output is on the horizon. However, brace yourself for a rugged five-to-ten year period as we transition from this old electricity world of the power utility to the new, electrical-grid dominated energy world.

Related web pages:

June 6 2001 New York Times Editorial/Op-Ed by Roger Anderson Wattage Where It's Needed

about PETROCHANGE Knowledge Network
Catalyzing Innovation and Change in the International Petroleum Industry

Web Video
Roger Anderson

"Computers
an Energy Drain
"

About The Earth Institute
The Earth Institute at Columbia University is the world's leading academic center for the integrated study of Earth, its environment and society. The Earth Institute builds upon excellence in the core disciplines — earth sciences, biological sciences, engineering sciences, social sciences and health sciences — and stresses cross-disciplinary approaches to complex problems. Through research, training and global partnerships, it mobilizes science and technology to advance sustainable development, while placing special emphasis on the needs of the world's poor. For more information, visit www.earth.columbia.edu.