Is the proliferation of electronic devices in homes and offices causing a net increase or decrease in electricity consumption and greenhouse gas emissions?
This question has been a topic of heated controversy ever since 1999, when technology analyst Mark P. Mills published a study provocatively titled “The Internet Begins with Coal,” and co-authored with Peter Huber a Forbes column titled “Dig more coal – the PCs are coming.”
Others–notably Joe Romm and researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory–argued that the Internet was a minor contributor to electricity demand and potentially a major contributor to energy savings in such areas as supply chain management, telecommuting, and online purchasing.
Mills and Huber argued that digital networks, server farms, chip manufacture, and information technology had become a new key driver of electricity demand. And, they said, as the digital economy grows, so does demand for super-reliable power–the kind you can’t get from intermittent sources like wind turbines and solar panels.
Huber and Mills were not shy about pointing out the policy implications of their analysis. To wire the world, we must electrify the world. For most nations, that means burning more coal. The Kyoto agenda imperils the digital economy, and vice versa.
Critics, noting that Mills’s study was funded by the Western Fuels Association, attacked Huber and Mills as “lackeys” of the fossil fuel industry. Researchers from the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory produced several critiques and claimed they had decisively refuted Mills, directing a lot of fire at his “ballpark” estimate that the digital economy accounted for 8% of all U.S. electricity demand in 1999. I won’t try to settle that part of the controversy.
However, a new report by the International Energy Agency (IEA) confirms the basic correctness of the Mills-Huber thesis.
Here are some highlights from Gadgets and Gigawatts: Policies for Energy-Efficient Technologies, as summarized by E&E News Network’s Climatewire (subscription required):
- Efforts by countries worldwide to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase energy security are in trouble if nothing is done to check the energy gobbled by both information and communication technologies and consumer electronics.
- Energy used by computers and consumer electronics will double by 2022 and increase threefold by 2030.
- The projected increase is equivalent to the current combined total residential electricity consumption of the United States and Japan.
- To operate these devices, households around the world will spend around $200 billion in electricity bills and require the addition of approximately 280 Gigawatts (GW) of new generating capacity between now and 2030.
- The number of people using PCs will exceed 1 billion over the next seven months, and nearly 2 billion television sets are in use worldwide, averaging more than 1.3 sets per each household with access to electricity.
- More than 3.5 billion people will be mobile phone subscribers by 2010.
- In many households in OECD countries, electronic devices–a category that includes televisions, desktop computers, laptops, DVD players and recorders, modems, printers, set-top boxes, portable telephones, answering machines, game consoles, audio equipment, clocks, battery chargers, mobile phones and children’s games–consume more electricity than do traditional large appliances.
- Household use of electronic devices is the major reason that residential electricity consumption is increasing in most countries.
- Electricity consumption by small electrical and electronic devices has shot up more rapidly than that of any other type of appliance over the past five years, in both OECD and non-OECD countries.
- Computers, related equipment and consumer electronics are responsible for close to 15 percent of total residential electricity consumption today, a share similar to that of other major appliance categories such as water heating or refrigeration. However, the growth has been faster, about 7 percent per year since 1990.
- Residential electricity consumption has been on the rise in all regions of the globe at an average of 3.4 percent a year since 1990. In European industrialized nations, it grew by 1.9 percent yearly between 1990 and 2006. One-quarter of this growth resulted from increases in population; per capita electricity consumption grew by 1.4 percent over the same period.
- Even with improvements foreseen in energy efficiency, consumption by electronics in the residential sector is set to increase by 250 percent by 2030.
- “The share of electricity consumption by these appliances is therefore increasing to the extent that they will most likely comprise the largest end-use category in many countries before 2020, unless effective steps are taken,” said IEA Executive Director Nobuo Tanaka in a press release.
- “These estimates suggest that total residential electricity consumption will increase more than many previous forecasts, and therefore pose a serious challenge to all governments with policy ambitions to increase energy security and economic development, and to mitigate climate change,” states the report.
If I were writing a press release about the IEA study for Mark Mills, the headline would say, “Told ya so!”