The Internet Begins with Coal

Published October 1, 1999

Every measure of the Internet shows explosive growth in numbers of users, number of Web sites, bandwith, and the billions of dollars in e-commerce. However, there is one measure that has been absent from consideration thus far–the quantity of electricity needed to keep the Net hot.

Two decades ago, this metric, like all others for the Internet, didn’t matter. The number of computers and microprocessor-based devices on the Internet was counted in the thousands. Now there are at least 100 million.

Preliminary calculations reveal that the electricity appetite of the equipment on the Internet by itself has grown from essentially nothing ten years ago to 8 percent of total U.S. electricity consumption today. In all likelihood, the Internet is responsible for one-half to two-thirds of all the growth in U.S. electricity demand in the last decade.

For every 2,000 Kbytes of data moving on the Internet, the energy from a pound of coal is needed to create the necessary kilowatt-hours. . . . The Internet is building a tsunami of old-fashioned electron demand the likes of which utilities have not seen in half a century.

Every PC-type of microprocessor is like a light bulb energized by 50 to 100 watts; but unlike lights, many integrated circuits are on all the time. In addition, on the Internet, demand begets more demand. The microprocessor and the Internet help explain why great strides and billions of dollars invested in traditional electric efficiency have not flattened overall electric load growth. Efficiency gains in lighting, motors, and refrigeration–the anchor products of the first electric age–have been more than offset by the electric needs of the products of this next info-electric age.

There are already 50 million PCs in households, another 150 million computers in businesses, and 36 million more being sold every year. Not only do the desktops and the peripherals need electricity, but so do all the other microprocessor-based boxes in the network that push, amplify, transmit, receive, route, and manage the bits. There are millions of these boxes too. Not only is electricity needed to operate these boxes, but they are fabricated by one of the most electric-intensive industries in the country. The $50 billion/year semiconductor industry is now the nation’s largest manufacturing sector, surpassing the auto parts sector in 1995.

Intel’s vision of one billion PCs on the Internet represents a global kilowatt-hour demand equal to the entire output of the U.S. electric grid. The magnitude of the appetite of the Internet and information age for electricity has powerful implications for those in industry and policy makers. It now seems reasonable to forecast that in the foreseeable future, certainly within two decades, 30 to 50 percent of the nation’s electric supply will be required to meet the direct and indirect needs of the Internet.

While environmentalists and utilities have been standing on desks to screw in light bulbs that save 10 watts here and 50 watts there, the owners of the desks have been plugging in PCs and peripherals that gobble 1,000 watts and more–and create an echo on the Internet requiring still more power. The debate over what sources of power we should encourage the market to use, which dominates the electric restructuring debate, will be buried by the market’s info-age drive demand for lots of power, cheap power, and increasingly reliable power.

Over the next decade, issues like so-called “green” power will lose urgency in the face of the overwhelming need for “smart” power tailored to meet the Internet economy.

Excerpted from The Internet Begins with Coal, a May 1999 report produced by Mark P. Mills for The Greening Earth Society.