The Cloud is Powered by Coal


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The Cloud is Powered by Coal

Americans use too much energy” is one of the most politically correct things you can say—but it’s wrong. My favorite response to that complaint is by the great energy commentator Robert Bryce, who says: “Actually, I use just the right amount.”

There’s no such thing as too much energy. Energy is the capacity to power machines that make our lives better. There are always new and wonderful ways to use it.

I was reminded of this last week when I was using gobs of energy watching video on my iPad. I had a nasty stomach virus, and the only consolation was that the two days of nausea gave me a good justification to watch copious amounts of Sherlock, the (amazing) BBC drama, as a distraction.

And make no mistake—me lying in bed watching Sherlock on an iPad uses a lot of energy—even though it might not appear that way.

Consider this: one of the most energy-intensive appliances we have is a refrigerator. It takes a lot of work to generate cold air (a lot more than generating hot air). Well, as physicist and energy analyst Mark Mills has documented, using a tablet or smartphone to watch an hour of streaming video a week uses more energy than two refrigerators.

In his landmark white paper “The Cloud Begins With Coal,” Mills tells us to look behind the screen and ask (to use my example): how did this episode of Sherlock get from the BBC to Netflix to me?

It traverses through what Mills calls the “Information Communications Technologies ecosystem,” (ICT) which includes:

  • Data centers that have become warehouse-scale supercomputers unlike anything in history;
  • Ubiquitous broadband wired and wireless communications networks;
  • The myriad of end-use devices from PCs to tablets and smart phones to digital TV, and,
  • The manufacturing facilities producing all the ICT hardware. [My iPad took four times as much energy to make as it will use during its lifetime.]

Upon learning that watching video on the Internet is so energy-intensive, some might want cut back on this “unnecessary convenience.”

But conveniences aren’t unnecessary. When I was sick last week, my high-energy viewing choices made me far happier than I would have otherwise been.

I remember when I would get sick in high school, just a decade and a half ago, if I wanted to watch something I’d face a lose-lose choice between the daytime soap operas on TV and the already-watched videocassettes at my parents’ house. The Internet was little better; most of the “content” was brief, postage-stamp-sized video clips. The best option was to go rent a video or four from Blockbuster, but in a nauseated state that option wasn’t very appetizing. (If anyone is thinking of telling me that I should have been reading a book, leave me alone; I love reading, but there are times when a good TV show is all that will do.)

Now when I get sick, armed with a Roku, iPad, or iPhone, I am recreationally empowered—whether sitting on my couch, lying in bed, or visiting the doctor’s office. Thanks to high-energy technology, I’ve been given the opportunity to enjoy life more. How great is that?

When you hear generic pronouncements that Americans are “wasteful,” and use “too much energy,” the objects of scorn are people like you and me doing what we want, when we want, usually using a lot of energy in the process.

We are particularly scorned because using a lot of energy means using a lot of the world’s leading and fastest-growing source of electricity: coal. According to Mills:

Electricity fuels the infrastructure of the world’s ICT ecosystem—the Internet, Big Data and the Cloud. Coal is the world’s largest single current and future source of electricity.

Why is “dirty” coal so popular? Because while coal power has risks and side effects—as does everything, including mining for the hazardous materials of solar panels—people rightly judge the benefits, which can mean a decade added to life expectancy in a developing country, to be more than worth it. And because people have confidence that new technology, not renunciation, is the way to address coal’s problems.

Unfortunately, under pressure from Greenpeace—a group that has never met a practical source of energy it didn’t oppose (it’s anti-coal, anti-oil, anti-gas, anti-nuclear, anti-hydro)—some leading technology companies, including Apple and Facebook, have advocated a “clean [coal-free] cloud” and claimed that they themselves are running their data centers on 100% solar and wind.

Since I am about to call Apple and Facebook “liars,” let me say that I generally disapprove of using the term “liar” to describe those you disagree with. Disagreements usually stem from differences in thinking methodology rather than pure dishonesty about isolated facts. But the “100% renewable” is so dishonest the only term I can think of for those who make it is “Power Liars.”

As I wrote on my public Facebook page in November:

Facebook is the latest Power Liar with its claim of a new data center powered by 100% wind. In fact, they are using energy accounting fraud to count the unreliable wind energy on the grid as theirs, and the fossil fuels that make everything work as other people’s. To make this a double-disgrace, they refused to use a nuclear plant, which would have produced reliable, non-CO2 energy, so they could placate the primitives at Greenpeace. Zuckerberg should make a public apology for a) lying and b) smearing as “dirty” the people who work every day to power Facebook and every other aspect of modern life.

If these companies truly believe solar and wind have economic potential—as against PR or cocktail-party-acceptance potential—by all means, go ahead and experiment. But don’t condemn the one source of energy that makes everything you do possible. Because then you are condemning everyone who uses coal—including your coal-phones and coal-pads and coal computers and coal media—to make their lives better.

Alex Epstein, an energy philosopher, debater, and communications consultant, is Founder and President of the Center for Industrial Progress, head of the I Love Fossil Fuels Campaign, and author of Fossil Fuels Improve the Planet, “The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels: The Key to Winning Hearts and Minds,” and the forthcoming book The Case for Fossil Fuels (Penguin/Portfolio, 2014). Contact him here.

Source: Forbes



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