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Energy , the environment & information technology

Our societies in the developed world are built on the assumption that energy is both freely available and relatively cheap.  Our homes,  offices and even recreational areas are often littered with a plethora of energy consuming devices i.e. Televisions, Computers, air conditioners, heating etc.  Our lives and livelihoods have become increasingly dependent and inter-twinned with energy derived mostly from the burning of fossil fuels.

The use of fossil fuels to generate energy, and the volume of fossil fuels required to generate energy has rapidly been on the increase for the past 250 years, since the start of the industrial revolution.

 A tale of two worlds

When was the last time you stopped to think how the energy used to power your smart phone, laptop or television actually got there? Have you ever pondered how the fossil fuel you’re burning today will be replaced tomorrow?

For many of us electricity is but a button click away.  We literally take it for granted.  We choose to complain about increased energy prices, and yet we continue purchase yet more energy consuming devices, which no doubt require enormous amounts of energy to be generated during their manufacture, shipping and distribution.


Although we don’t understand what energy means or necessarily how it’s generated, we certainly know how to use it. In fact never before has there ever been a society which has become so dependant and reliant on energy as our own.  Take a brief moment to ponder what life would be like without electricity or fossil fuels. Indeed our high-tech, computer reliant society would cease to function; productivity would fall, and our GDP would drastically plummet. Our societies would descend into anarchy and chaos, the likes of which we have never witnessed.

Those of you who live in the UK, can surely remember events in September 2000, when a small number of protesters managed to stop petroleum supplies to UK petrol stations. Effectively grinding the economy to a halt within days;  people couldn’t get to work and supermarkets ran out of food.

It is obvious that cheap and available energy is of paramount importance to the continuation and survival of our advanced industrial society. Understanding the nature of energy, its supply and its utilization is therefore a subject of great importance, because without energy the developed world faces an uncertain future.

People living in developing countries will be all too aware that energy is a finite resource. In poorer countries electricity is supplied only to major towns, albeit with common power failures.  The quality of life is greatly reduced, productivity is hampered which ensures these countries ultimately have a low GDP.

The greatest paradox of our age is that one-third of the worlds population lives in a consumer society which squanders energy easily, while the other two-thirds live in countries which are unable to secure enough energy to grow economically.

The USA consumes 21% of all the worlds primary energy while having only 4% of the worlds population.

The harsh reality is that as all economies of the developing world grow, so their demand for energy will also grow. This will increase pressure on the earth’s dwindling supply of fossil fuel. The direct result of this on the developed world will be higher energy prices and an increase in pollution, which will have no geographical or status boundaries.

Statistics show that – even given the severity of the recession – the UK’s GDP has risen by almost 58% since 2000, while energy intensity has actually fallen by 12%. Yet because of rising prices, few of us will have felt any benefit.

The fallacy of cost reduction and efficiency

The energy industry in the UK is worth 5% of the GDP and employs 4% of the industrial workforce making it one of the largest industries in the UK. The energy supply sector is also multinational in nature.  Fossil fuels are transported long distances across many international borders and electricity is traded between nations on a daily basis. It should come as no surprise due to it’s importance and multinational interconnectedness that many parties have vested interest in promoting energy consumption and that this often leads to conflicts with those driven by environmental and conservation considerations.

Economies can only continue to grow if the people within those economies continue to consume! So regardless of whether businesses reduce the amount of energy they consume to manufacture products, in an effort to reduce cost in order to increase profits, they will still be under pressure to sell more, in order to sell more they will be required to manufacture more products.

It is a well known fact, that in an effort by companies to get us to buy more, they have reduced the quality of products in order for them to be less durable and have shorter life spans.  This leads to the increased manufacture and distribution of products, all ultimately leading to increased energy consumption and even more pressure on the dwindling resources.

In an effort to gain further production efficiency, or reduce labour force usage companies will make further investments into Information Technology (IT).  This investment into IT not only increases energy investment into the manufacture of the equipment but also requires more energy to be generated to keep it running.  Companies also gather and store huge amounts of data about their consumers, in order to analyse the data for ideas on how to create innovative new products for their consumers. This data is generally stored in data centres. IT data centres now consume a large amount of electricity in the U.S. and world-wide. The projected energy usage of data centres is expected to rise much faster than any other industrial sectors.

The beginning of the end or the dawning of a new era?

It is at this point, we are bound to ask what part is Information Technology going to play in our planets future?

There is no doubt, that over the past 30 years IT has brought about astonishing improvements in vehicle engine efficiency through computerized management systems (EMS) that reduce emissions and fuel consumption.

Computation is increasingly essential to all aspects of out lives. Computers are in all becoming more efficient in terms of “millions of instructions per watt”. However, the proliferation of computers i.e. the number of devices per user has increased exponentially. As mentioned earlier data centres energy usage is currently doubling every five years, and they are more than likely going to account for 20 – 30% of the developed worlds energy usage within the next decade.

The substitution of energy intensive products and services for alternative IT products. Examples
include teleconferencing and telecommuting as a substitute for travel, on-line retailing as a substitute for bricks and mortar retailing, electronic record keeping opposed to paper based records.

The role of IT is set to be a double edged sword when it comes to solving the worlds energy future, it could play the role of both saviour and the destroyer. What’s your view on technology for the future?

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