Friday, May 22, 2009


Electric Shock

Richard Duncan’s Olduvai Theory states that electricity is essential to industrial civilization. Here it is not my purpose to argue whether he is right or wrong, or to debate the merits of Duncan’s theory, but obviously without electricity the world would be much different, and I would not be writing this.

In fact, electric power shortages currently hinder “development” in many countries of the world in Africa, Central Asia, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. Load shedding, in which electric power is purposely cut for whole regions to keep grids from going down, is a common practice in places like Pakistan. India, which is considered one of the great lights of economic development in Asia, has a serious power shortage. With the cost of primary energy supplies going up, and the availability of financing tight, it is highly doubtful that countries in these regions will ever obtain all the electricity generating capacity they want.

But developing countries aren’t the only ones facing power shortages. In fact, the very symbol of modern technological civilization, the United States itself, could be in the same boat. A primary feature of the information economy is the data center, or server farm. These are heavy power users, and data centers are being continually built or expanded to accommodate the ever-growing amount of data that people like me are creating. Now there are warnings of an impending data center power shortage, and observations that in the US at least, fast-growing data center power consumption is threatening to overwhelm generating capacity and the grid. If data centers start going down, the shock waves would be greater than those about to be unleashed by the bankruptcy of GM.

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