Peter W. Huber and Mark Mills
Southern California Edison, meet Amazon.com. Somewhere in America, a lump of coal is burned every time a book is ordered on-line.
The current fuel-economy rating: about a pound of coal to create, package, store and move 2 megabytes of data. The digital age, it turns out, is very energy-intensive. The Internet may someday save us bricks, mortar and catalog paper, but it is burning up an awful lot of fossil fuel in the process.
Under the PC's hood, demand for horsepower doubles every couple of years. Yes, today's microprocessors are much more efficient than their forerunners at turning electricity into computations. But total demand for digital power is rising far faster than bit efficiencies are. We are using more chips — and bigger ones — and crunching more numbers. The bottom line: Taken all together, chips are running hotter, fans are whirring faster, and the power consumption of our disk drives and screens is rising.
About half of the trillion-dollar infrastructure of today's electric power grid exists to serve just two century-old technologies — the lightbulb and the electric motor. Not long ago, that meant little prospect for growth in the power industry. We have about as many motors and bulbs as we need. "The long-run supply curve for electricity is as flat as the Kansas horizon," declared green guru Amory Lovins in 1984.
© 1999 Forbes