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Computers' Appetite For Electricity Raises Concerns

Computers and the Internet were supposed to be energy-friendly technology, but some experts are beginning to question just how friendly. There’s no denying that the Internet allows millions of people around the world to communicate easily and cheaply without leaving home or office. That saves energy - from commuter trips in the car to business flights across the ocean, not to mention package express.

But computers, along with the powerful servers, packet routers and other equipment that keep home, corporate and global networks functioning, also consume electricity. And the spectacular rate of growth in computer networks will demand more and more electric power, according to expert Mark Mills, a physicist and forecaster of electronic technology, and Peter Huber, an attorney and the author or books on science and technology. Indeed, it’s already happening, says Mills and Huber.

While demand in other energy sectors is stable or decreasing, U.S. electricity demand is growing 3 percent a year. More than half of that increase is due to the rise of the computer microprocessor, they contend. The estimated 100 million computers and pieces of computer-related equipment already connected to the Internet worldwide - each drawing from hundreds to thousands of kilowatt-hours per year - add up to 290 billion kilowatts of demand, Mills and Huber estimate. That’s equal to about 8 percent of current U.S. demand. If you add in all the computers and appliances containing computer chips that are not connected to the Internet, the world electric demand from information technology is equal to about 13 percent of current U.S. demand, Mills and Huber figure.

Others have made similar estimates. Steven Anzovin, author of “The Green PC”, calculated that personal computers devoured 330 billion kilowatt hours of electricity in 1997, “enough to keep California’s 11 million households running for more than three years.” When Mills and Huber laid out their estimates in a recent issue of Forbes magazine, the numbers sent shivers through both the information-technology industry and the environmental community. “I’m still reeling from that one,” said Ted Smith, executive director of the Silicon Valley Toxins Coalition, which tracks environmental problems generated by the computer industry. “Where is that energy going to come from?”

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