Digital technologies consume way too much energy and present an environmental and sustainability issue that demands a fresh design approach
Very few commentators link Energy and Digital policy topics. Even fewer policy developers understand how they are intertwined.
Each policy is on a single track but heading towards each other. Both engines of the economy urgently need collision avoidance. Knocking heads together now can circumvent an even greater mess.
Only now are the full consequences of strategic decisions made in separate silos decades ago becoming clear. Attributing blame and short-term attitudes for current and future shortcomings is, alas, too easy. It doesn’t add up to a plan of where we go from here but first there’s a need for everyone to understand that we have a problem.
Basically the Internet will not scale – meaning that as demand increases, digital infrastructure performance will suffer and energy supply will become more fragile.
Regardless of which growth forecast you believe – and most insiders bet on a doubling of devices over the next decade – without radical overhaul, the predominant current and planned digital access technologies (how you get connected) will consume way too much energy. It is an environmental/sustainability issue that demands a fresh design approach to ensure resilience of these basic utilities.
The solutions are twofold – generate vastly more electricity or waste far less of it on inefficient forms of digital connectivity. No one is suggesting that we put the entire economy into hibernation.
The first option – generate vastly more – is decidedly unattractive and hugely risky in terms of the UK’s energy supply security. But current efforts to reduce demand need rethinking.
The second option – boost connection capacity but at the same time use far less energy – is technologically possible but demands a complete rethink by dominant suppliers – whether they are in fixed line or mobile markets or both.
It is simply not possible to envisage future energy sufficiency (Ref 1) to push signals down copper cables or send mobile signals over great distances – like more than 200 metres – given the sort of high frequency spectrum that is now available.
All mobile services are themselves ultimately dependent on fixed line connectivity to route to and from the wider Internet. Moreover, the implications of using higher frequency radio spectrum are that the much-vaunted low-power 5G designs will be dependent on fibre connections from millions of locations and will look like Wi-Fi on steroids – with demands way beyond the creaking copper connections of yester-year.
How many slightly overlapping 200 metre radius circles fit into the UK’s 65 million acres? That, of course, is a very hypothetical question – we live in a multi-channel landscape – but, as digital applications accelerate, the current lack of any mobile coverage on thousands of miles of UK roads illustrates the challenge.
Enthusiasts for maintaining use of legacy copper networks insist on pointing to technologies that seem to increase their capacity (if only in one direction) but these in turn exacerbate the energy challenges. Their application is misplaced. Sure, run fibre all the way to a building and then use the technology to push the signals a little way further inside the building – but even that local in-building distribution is inefficient compared to low power wireless technologies like WiFi.
At the same time, Energy Management systems have developed to render past infrastructures obsolescent. The top down view of energy – generators, the national grid, local distribution – is being turned on its head. Alternative energy sources – solar, wind, tidal, wave, ground heat pumps – are popping up all over the place.
Soon the complexity of managing demand will be further complicated by new local storage options. One thing that will not help lessen the load is the current and expensively failing UK Smart Meters project.
So what if policy developers for both Energy and Digital better understood each other?
We don’t need to dwell on the past mistakes – but refocus minds on where they go from here.
For around the same investment cost as Smart Meters the Digital camp could reduce Energy demand by between 5-10% – depending on how quickly they buckle down to eliminating copper networks. But, of course, much of that Smart Meter money has already been spent – some would say, wasted.
On the other hand the costs of fibre have been falling and the investment returns rising – a completely different investment scene to that prevailing 2 decades ago. The cost savings come from all aspects of network deployment. That could easily be accelerated with liberalization of incumbents’ passive infrastructure – the ducts and poles,
And the net benefit of this silo-fusion? Accelerated economic growth and greater energy supply security – massively faster connectivity and far fewer power failures.
If only it was that easy to knock government and industry heads together to avoid an unexpected collision. Maybe, in our newfound love of devolution, city mayors will be resolved to point out that the utility emperors are lacking decent underwear.
- Telecoms & Exponential Growth- Cochrane TJV8 Pt4 (PDF download) Cochrane P, Telecoms and Exponential Growth, ITP Journal Vol. 8/4 Oct/Dec 2014 reproduced with permission of the Institute for Telecoms Professionals www.theitp.org
This article was first published by Computer Weekly 26/Feb/2015