Sunday, September 27, 2009


Data Center Energy Requirement

Just ran across this article, “A look at the nonstop acceleration of Internet technology,” which also serves as a window into problems building in this area. As with everything else, readers are invited to check out the links themselves. Here I’ll just mention one part that describes how much power data centers need.
A lot of energy is required to run the Internet cloud. According to Stanford University’s Jonathan Koomey, Internet data centers use about two percent of our nation’s electricity, and usage is increasing at about 15 percent a year. Growth in Internet use is thus overwhelming the efficiency gains of Moore’s Law and generating a significant and growing carbon footprint.
The “two percent” figure refers to the US, so of course the amount of power used globally will be much larger. But 2% growing at 15% annually is nothing to sneeze at. More significantly, this passage also underscores the functioning of Jevons paradox by noting that efficiency gains are being quickly gobbled up by expanding internet use.

The author also makes some observations on the growth of cloud computing, which will not only require still more data centers and power, but create new problems of its own.


Data Center Blues

Here I am, writing yet another post that adds another drop to the rapidly growing ocean of data that has to be stored in one of the many data centers out there. As I’ve noted in recent posts, this presents a serious and ballooning challenge to those who build and manage data centers, not to mention the data centers’ rising demand for power.

Here are two articles that shed more light on this problem and present us with some surprising and interesting facts. Here I will just mention two; please read the articles to see all the information they have to offer.

Considering the expense that goes into building a data center, you might be surprised to hear that many operators think that after just six to 10 years, their data centers are already nearing the ends of their service lives. If that is true, then new homes must be found for all the accumulated data in those aging data centers. That is in addition to all the data that are expected to be generated in the near future. So we need new data centers to handle both new and old data. Of course if the old data centers shut down, their power can be shifted to new data centers, but as we continue to accumulate more data, power requirements will rise no matter how efficient new data centers are (remember Jevons paradox).

To underscore my point about data proliferation and new data center construction, one of the articles says:
Yet, the data center market is growing rapidly even in this depressed economy. Newer, bigger, more powerful multi-megawatt sites are being planned and built at a rate not seen since the height of the dot-com boom days of the late 1990’s.
Wow! Even as I write this, data are multiplying like digital rabbits, and new hutches must be built for all of them.

So, keep an eye on this. It will be interesting to see how many rabbits we can continue to house until the bottom falls out of the hutches.

Saturday, September 26, 2009


Keeping Farm Machinery Going

An article over on The Oil Drum, “Energetics of cultivation: draft animals vs. combustion engines and the Haber process,” takes up the matter of what will happen to mechanized agriculture if petroleum products, specifically fuel for machinery, become unavailable, and concludes that a shutdown of mechanized agriculture doesn’t have to happen because farms could themselves produce the fuels (biofuels) needed to run their machinery. At first glance, this might seem like a reasonable and reassuring conclusion to most people, but is it?

Realistically, anyone who has worked on a modern farm knows that keeping farm machinery running is more than a matter of putting fuel in the tank. As with any other kind of machine, all self-propelled farm machines such as tractors, and all the machines that they pull, need maintenance. Machines break down, and require repairs, lubrication, and replacement parts. Self-propelled machines such as tractors and combines additionally need to have their engines serviced, which at the least means oil changes, new filters and gaskets, spark plugs, and the like.

Without going into any detail, anyone can now see that claiming we can keep farm machinery going as long as we have biofuels is just simplistic thinking like saying that if we can’t get gasoline, we’ll just switch to electric cars. Keeping machines going requires maintaining the whole array of economic and industrial processes that underpin those machines — everything from manufacturing the parts and assembling them, to distribution and service networks, obtaining and supplying fuel and lubricants, and getting those supplies and services out to the farms. Further, remember that our economic system runs not only on energy, but also debt, so we must also maintain the system of credit used by the businesses that provide and service the machines, not to mention the loans that the farmers themselves need to run their operations.

And how will seeds and fertilizers be produced and delivered? Will these industries also run themselves on biofuels?

Unfortunately, there is no shortage of simplistic thinking and rose-colored glasses among those who assure us of a Glorious Technological Future, in which we will be vacationing in space or on Mars. This is just another of many examples in which the writer fails to take a system-wide view.

The first point in the post, “Farming before powered machinery,” is quite valuable, though, because it gives us a peek at what we’ll eventually return to. And that is why I maintain that we must move a substantial portion of the population back on the land.

Friday, September 25, 2009


Ecological Debt and Food

The FAO tells us that in 2050 the world will have to produce 70% (!) more food to feed our burgeoning global population. That’s a pretty tall order. Of course, there is a monumental amount of food wasted and thrown away, so that tweaking the world food production and distribution system could eliminate much hunger. And because many people starve because of politics, some political changes would save still more lives (although I wouldn’t count on that happening).

Nevertheless, all that surplus wasted food is produced in an unsustainable manner, which is one of the factors behind the world’s ecological debt. Combine that ecological debt with other factors, such as dependence on a deteriorating industrial system that runs on fossil fuels, the wholesale destruction of precious farmland around the globe for “development,” and the rapidly building mountain of monetary debt, and it’s quite obvious that we are never going to increase food production by 70%. Driving production and consumption with debt — both ecological or monetary — is just digging us deeper into a sand pit that is ready to collapse around us.

Again, the economic growth model has to be abandoned, debt must be eliminated, and many people must be moved back on the land to farm it and care for it.

Thursday, September 24, 2009


More Gadgets, More Power

In Power Shortages below, I noted that to handle the quickly growing mountain of data and cloud computing services, modern societies will require the construction of more data centers, which will consume more power. Just before that, in Oil and the Downhill Slide, I noted that Jevons paradox would help offset any efficiency gains. Here is a media article (thanks to the FTW Blog for bringing this article to my attention) which illustrates the operation of these forces with regard to consumer appliances. Our economy (which requires growth) and Jevons paradox dictate that the world will have more data centers and more consumer appliances consuming more energy. Again, any gains in efficiency will be handily offset by the rapid proliferation of data and appliances, until finally the economy blows like a punctured tire.

Resistance is futile.

Monday, September 21, 2009


Collapse and Dead Horses

Over at The Oil Drum, Gail the Actuary has posted a discussion-provoking piece titled “Is There Any Silver Lining to a Collapse Scenario?” While many of us are concentrating on how we are going to survive and thrive, she presents a different way of looking at impending doom. Certainly there are many people who might adopt this way of thinking when they realize that industrial society is crumbling. But of course individuals will all make their own choices on how to grapple with the situation.

In the second paragraph she sets out her own concerns on how the situation will evolve. Due to the interlocking nature of socioeconomic systems and dependence on cheap energy, I tend to think she is right, but her speculation that world population will drop by 90% was a bit of a shocker. Yes, it’s going to be bad, and without a doubt hundreds of millions of innocent people will suffer and die for lack of energy (including food), war and other violence, disease, and other causes. Still, 90% seems a bit drastic to me.

But the important consideration here is that so many lives could be saved, and so much suffering prevented or mitigated, if governments only took the right action. Instead of expending still more resources and energy in the vain attempt to prop up a dying system, governments should be moving quickly to downscale economies, reverse urbanization, kill the consumer society, and get as many people as possible back on the land. But unfortunately, governments are still orienting their societies and economies toward the “space age.”

What’s all this got to do with dead horses? you say. Consider this article, “U.S. to push for new economic world order at G20.” I can already hear the groans out there. How many times have we little people had “new world orders” foisted on us? And it’s sort of tragicomic because the high muck-a-mucks are planning new world orders despite the tacit realization that in fact the system is already out of control and hurtling toward greater instability and more crashes.

But, gentle reader, look no farther than the article’s second paragraph:
A document outlining the U.S. position ahead of the September 24-25 Group of 20 summit in Pittsburgh said exporters, which include China, Germany and Japan, should consume more, while debtors like the United States ought to boost savings.
This is a scream. Are these experts living on the same planet as I am? I’ve been here in Japan for quite a few years, and I assure you that there is not much room for having the Japanese consume more. We are awash in goods and trash here already. If you go into a typical Japanese home you’ll see they have more than enough stuff as it is. Many people stash things outside their homes because they no longer have room inside. And people can only eat so much before their stomachs burst. I suppose there is a lot of pent-up desire for consumption in China, but here in Japan telling people to consume more is like beating a dead horse. And in fact, “dead-horse economics” is a good name for the current global economic regime.

While governments and experts are busy expending their energy on beating dead horses, out in the real world nothing has changed. The toxic debt bomb just keeps adding more explosives as it gets ready to blow up in our faces.

Again, everyone has to make their own decisions. Some will want to keep beating a dead horse. Others will try to live life to the fullest while they can in ways suggested in Gail the Actuary’s post. Still others will make preparations in hope of being among those who survive and maybe even thrive. As for the last choice, I don’t think that nine out of 10 people will perish, so any preparations you make now will give you a much better chance of pulling through.

Saturday, September 19, 2009


Power Shortages

People living in developed nations don’t have to worry too much — yet — about power shortages, but much of humanity suffers widespread power shortages on a daily basis. A recent article illustrating the seriousness of this matter is “RP facing looming power shortage,” about the grave shortage that the Philippines faces. Indeed, people fortunate to live in countries where power outages are infrequent events caused by things like electrical storms are largely ignorant that shortages are endemic across a broad swath of the globe from Africa through the Middle East (despite all their energy resources), Central Asia, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. Blackouts implemented on purpose due to insufficient power (sometimes called “load shedding”) are everyday occurrences to uncountable inhabitants of some countries, such as Pakistan.

Power shortages in developing countries are of course a serious constraint on economic activities and further development, not to mention the discomfort to people in hot countries when there’s no air conditioning. But the developed countries should not be too confident that it can’t happen to them. Dependence on networks linking data centers increases day by day, requiring more power for the new data centers that are constantly being built. And critical personal data (medical records, insurance policy information, student records, credit card information, and what have you) are now stored on server systems. If power to these systems is disrupted for some reason, or if the data centers themselves are damaged, data could become unavailable. The growth of “cloud computing” will make us further dependent on glitch-free networks and server systems, and on outage-free electric power. Can we count on that?

So you can see there’s no guarantee we’ll always have our data, or have access. Modern societies are putting all their eggs in one basket by digitizing everything and assuming that we’ll always have electricity, except for short, infrequent outages. Yet, the power shortages in developing countries are going to affect the whole world, and also show us what will very well happen in developed countries as our power requirements continue to rise and we struggle to fill them.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


Oil and the Downhill Slide

Business/finance writers and especially bloggers are often a good read because they tend to be more honest and frank than journalists who write general news articles. After all, they’re interested in telling investors and businesspeople how to make money and avoid getting a haircut.

This Financial Post article, “Oil prices mean perpetual recession,” is worth reading in that respect. I’m glad to see that financial journalists understand the implications of expensive oil. Even at around $70/bbl the world is struggling (which many people would attribute exclusively to the financial crisis, but imagine how different things would be if oil were $10/bbl).

This is bad enough, but actually the situation is worse. We might be able to temporarily stave off collapse by taking measures such as those recommended in the article, but any savings are going to be readily eaten up by expansion in developing countries.

Then there are “efficiency improvements.” But as Jevons paradox and insatiable global consumer demand show, any energy saved through efficiency will be handily offset. For example, think of how the advent of digital audio players and small, inexpensive cars is fueling and satisfying consumer demand around the world, even among those with little economic wherewithal.

And if you read the piece I recommended in the previous post, you know that our socioeconomic systems keep getting more complex, and that added complexity demands more and more energy. We often hear people wonder how much energy it takes to power the internet, and a good answer to that is “more and more.” New data centers (also known as server farms) are continually being built, and one of the prime considerations in siting a data center is whether it will be able to get enough power.

And then there is recycling. To deal with our trash problem, we decided to recycle, which in itself is laudable, but look at what we ended up with: Many countries now have recycling system comprising armies of specialized bins for different kinds of recyclables, temporary storage facilities for recyclables, fleets of trucks hauling the collected items around, recycling plants, an administrative apparatus, and what have you. Clearly, we are expending a lot of resources and energy for recycling!

So, we aren’t going to have just a perpetual recession, but a slide (or rather, collapse) whose speed, incline, and ultimate results can be influenced by what steps people and governments take now to mitigate the harmful impacts and steer societies in a more desirable direction. But since governments are doing essentially nothing, I guess it’s up to us.

Saturday, September 12, 2009


Complexity and Collapse

I wish to alert everyone to a really fine piece over at The Oil Drum called “Human Resource Use: Timing and Implications for Sustainability.” The title actually sounds rather humdrum, especially when considering the extremely serious implications for industrial society. If the author is correct — and I certainly think he is — we are in for a real shakedown. But don’t take my word for it; read and judge for yourself.

Sunday, September 06, 2009


Unacknowledged Dependence on Fossil Fuels

The ultimate dependence of our society on fossil fuels is unfortunately not acknowledged by the people who come up with various grand plans to save industrial civilization, the consumer society, and the car culture. I suspect that in some cases people just never think that far, because they are conditioned to assume the infrastructure for modern society will always be there, while in other cases people are disingenuous, and prefer not to bring the matter up and spoil our dreams (or theirs).

Here’s a specific example of this unacknowledged dependence on fossil fuels from Scientific American, a site run by people you would expect to know better. They have an article titled “Will a speed bump power the grid?” The idea — which is in itself a good one, though far too late — is that mechanized speed bumps would use the energy of a moving automobile to generate electricity. The underlying assumption is that the cars will keep rolling. But of course, cars of the future will be powered by hydrogen, biofuels, or electricity, right? Even if that happens, we still have the problem of how we will manufacture cars and build roads. And how are they going to make the mechanical speed bumps, which no doubt use a lot of steel? So this is not really a solution for anything. If people had invented and implemented machines like this long ago to conserve on fossil fuels, it could have at least extended the life of industrial civilization.

Another example is waste-to-power schemes. Consumer society has waste running out its ears, and we’re running out of places to stash the trash. So the idea is to stop landfilling the trash, instead use it as fuel, and generate electricity. Which is fine in itself. But how do you haul the trash? How do you build a waste-to-power plant? And if we look more deeply, we see an even bigger problem: Where does the energy content of that trash come from? The food waste was produced by an energy-intensive agricultural system powered by fossil fuels. The plastic is a petrochemical product. Go through a bag of trash and imagine how much fossil fuel energy is embedded in each item. So ultimately, waste-to-power assumes that the fossil fuel-powered economy will continue, because otherwise there would be no trucks, no plant, and not even a waste stream.

All schemes to keep modern industrial society going should be viewed through this lens of reality, yet we are constantly assured by governments and the media that fantastic new technologies are going to solve our problems, so relax. What we need is to have energy-savvy people take on the role of gadfly and point out this unacknowledged dependence on fossil fuels every time the media and “experts” start hawking some new idea. Either they have a replacement for fossil fuels, or they don’t. There is no in-between.

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