Digital this, digital everything: where’s the power coming from?

The world seems to have been so caught up in moving everything to the digital way of life that only a few people have paused to ask where the energy is going to come from. Take smartphones for instance; it used to be that phone batteries lasted for days and now they’re a day or two tops. It’s not that the battery capacities have stayed the same, it’s that the phones consume so much power because they’re basically miniaturized laptops that the technology can’t really keep up. So, we’ve gone to a situation where we now need more power to feed the smartphone and tablet usage.

In India, the government has committed itself to building a Digital India. To go digital, you need compute (servers), networking (to move data), data centers (storage); all this takes power, more power than we’re currently using. And, you need power to cool the “machines” that are providing the infrastructure for going digital.

Then, consider the Internet of Things (IoT); you are basically looking at connecting millions of devices to the Internet to enable them to talk to each other, for applications to use, etc. More power needed.

The whole thing is one giant power sucking machine that gets hungrier and hungrier. Just take a look at this Wikimedia graph: World Energy Consumption Chart and you’ll see what I’m talking about. It’s been increasing and will continue to increase. Right now, less than 7% of the world’s power is met by renewables (see this tool). A BP projection says “The share of renewables in the US fuel mix grows to 13% in 2035.

While you keep hearing about renewable energy (solar, wind, etc.) and biofuels (still polluting, by the way), the growth isn’t fast enough to meet the energy demands. So, where is the power going to come from? A significant portion of our energy wants (not needs) will still come from coal, oil, natural gas, etc., often lumped together as fossil fuels. (I think they should be called buried-CO2-releasing fuels but that’s just me.)

So, you still need fossil fuels and all this talk of renewables and smarter technologies are not going to help unless the power consumption levels out. I’ve seen no sign that this is going to happen anytime soon.

This talk of digital this and that makes me weary and circumspect because it is so easy to get swept away by the hype and the utopian promises. If you think about more digital in terms of more energy consumption, it’s not such an attractive proposition anymore.

As is the case with such posts, I have to say that I’m not a Luddite and that I realize that this is being written inside a browser, stored in a data center, and published on a server. Not to mention the broadband, the laptop, and all the accoutrements.

I get the allure of technology and i get that it has improved things. But, ultimately I think that the path that we are going down is not worth it because what it is leading to is the destruction of the natural world. My fear is in knowing that I am in the minuscule minority of people who think like this.

I want to end with a paragraph of Paul Kingsnorth’s essay Dark Ecology (which, if you haven’t read, you must):

There is always change, as a neo-environmentalist would happily tell you; but there are different qualities of change. There is human-scale change, and there is industrial-scale change; there is change led by the needs of complex systems, and change led by the needs of individual humans. There is a manageable rate of evolution, and there is a chaotic, excitable rush toward shiny things perched on the edge of a great ravine, flashing and scrolling like sirens in the gathering dusk.

Maybe we could all pause and consider this “chaotic, excitable rush toward shiny things perched on the edge of a great ravine“.

Solar at Kolar – a great first step

Today’s Deccan Herald had a piece of news that I was happy to read: State’s first solar power plant in Kolar

The State is all set to establish itself as a pioneer in solar power generation with the commissioning of a solar power plant near Kolar on June 17.

Apart from the three megawatts (MW) grid-operated solar power plant to be set up by Karnataka Power Corporation Limited (KPCL), two more projects are nearing completion in Belgaum and Raichur.

Almost a hundred years ago, Karnataka created history by becoming the first State in the country to generate electricity. Now, it has achieved another milestone by becoming the first State to produce solar energy, much before the implementation of National Solar Mission by the Union Ministry for Renewable Energy.

KPCL’s solar power plant at Kolar alone can save 4,500 metric tonnes of carbon emission as well as can earn upto Rs 35 lakh through carbon credits.

We need more initiatives like this and for more states to do what Karnataka is doing. Bravo KPCL.

Of Shell’s renewable energy programs

When I watched the Shell ads on TV, I always wondered about their investments in renewable energy and what steps they were taking to move towards cleaner fuels. (The ads were of the kind that were created to make you feel warm and fuzzy about Shell and its initiatives.)

George Monbiot interviewed the Shell CEO and has published an interesting account of the interview.

The interview I conducted with its chief executive, Jeroen van der Veer, broadcast on the Guardian’s website today, contains what appears to be an interesting admission. I asked him whether Shell had now stopped producing ads extolling its investments in renewable energy. Mr van der Veer does not express himself clearly at this point, but he seems to admit that his company’s previous advertising was not honest. “If we are very big in oil and gas and we are so far relatively small in alternative energies, if you then every day only make adverts about your alternative energies and not about 90% of your other activities I don’t think that — then I say transparency, honesty to the market, that’s nonsense.”

Monbiot’s looks at the money and the numbers and that help him make sense of what is actually going on. I know what to think about the Shell ads now.

It’s windy up there in Bangalore

I don’t know if this is a Koramangala thing or a Bangalore-wide phenomenon but it does get windy a couple of floors up in Koramangala. I’m not talking about a zephyr but proper, push-you-around kind of wind. It really rattles the awning-like structure on the roof of a building in Koramangala.

You can get a stronger dose of this kind of wind in the inner ring road stretch between Indiranagar and Koramangala, especially if you’re on a two-wheeler or in an auto. You can really feel the force of the wind there too.

The reason I’m mentioning this is because we seem to be back to our power-saving load-shedding mode. Maybe we should at least investigate whether the amount of power generated would make it worth it to try wind turbines at a couple of places in Bangalore.

Wind energy, while unreliable like our power situation now, is at least clean and does not have the problems of noise and air pollution that our diesel-powered generators do. Instead of the government thinking about establishing new thermal (coal) powered stations, it’s time they looked at clean, renewable energy alternatives.

No power cuts in Bangalore

Of course I’m being facetious, but the phrase that is used to describe what happens is load shedding, so we haven’t got any power cuts in Bangalore. Ha ha. Okay, so that was not funny.

Over the last few days, I’ve been experiencing the benefits of no power, like more reading, more cleaning, and more irritation. The power cuts I can understand. The power situation’s pretty dire and BESCOM can’t satisfy the power hungry consumers. What I can’t understand is the unscheduled load shedding. If the cuts were scheduled, at least people could plan their day around the “load shedding” time, by running errands or something. With the random cuts, you’re left with no idea of when you’ll have power and when you won’t. Apparently I am not alone in facing this problem.

My neighbour, who has an AC, runs it even when the weather doesn’t require an AC. This is the “Have AC will Run” (HAWR) syndrome, which may be affecting other AC owners in our city. Okay, so you may need an AC during summer, and that too for one or two months. I can’t understand running an AC when the weather’s good. Maybe there should be a moratorium on using ACs, especially in a power crisis. There are these things called fans which work pretty well.

I’m guessing though that the biggest culprits are the offices with their glass facade buildings and air conditioning units that suck up power. Yeah, some of the bigger offices have generators but that’s another can of worms with its air pollution, noise, and fuel consumption. All these glass facade buildings should be made to shift to solar energy and given incentives for doing so.

Finally, instead of trying to get the government to buy surplus power from other states, a better solution would be for us to reduce unnecessary power consumption and wastage of power.

Lower power consumption = lower electricity bill = savings. Savings that you can use to buy that AC you so desperately need. Of course, I’m being facetious.

Take Splashtop’s carbon rally challenge

In anticipation of Earth Day (April 22nd), DeviceVM, a company that makes a fast-booting operating system called Splashtop, is aiming to:

raise awareness about how much energy is wasted by computers and other consumer electronics that are left on or in standby mode.

Would you believe leaving your computer on at night generates 51 lbs of CO2 emissions each month? Or that worldwide we could save entire power-plants worth of energy just by switching off our computers each night?

DeviceVM has teamed up with CarbonRally.com to challenge people to make this simple change to help reduce their carbon footprint, and we want as many people to know about it as possible. DeviceVM thinks that technology and the environment should go hand in hand, and we think this is an easy way for everyone to make a difference.

Go to Accept the challenge to get more information.

I am not sure that people leave computers on at home but I used to notice that some did at work. People would leave their computers on when they left for the day, sometimes only for the reason that shutting down would mean that they had to reboot the next day and open their applications, etc. Not a good enough reason to waste all that energy. Get a faster computer or go get a coffee or something.

And, accept the challenge too.

A better world, like a billion times better

Ray Kurzweil, who’s like a really smart guy, writes in a piece (in the Washington Post) titled Making the World A Billion Times Better:

MIT was so advanced in 1965 (the year I entered as a freshman) that it actually had a computer. Housed in its own building, it cost $11 million (in today’s dollars) and was shared by all students and faculty. Four decades later, the computer in your cellphone is a million times smaller, a million times less expensive and a thousand times more powerful. That’s a billion-fold increase in the amount of computation you can buy per dollar.

Yet as powerful as information technology is today, we will make another billion-fold increase in capability (for the same cost) over the next 25 years. That’s because information technology builds on itself — we are continually using the latest tools to create the next so they grow in capability at an exponential rate. This doesn’t just mean snazzier cellphones. It means that change will rock every aspect of our world.

It’s a fascinating look at how technology could change our world and is worth reading. Here’s the link again.

Losing paradise?

In Tuesday’s supplement of the Deccan Herald was an article titled A true paradise but not for long. Excerpt:

The silence is broken by the occasional wave crashing upon the shore, full of fine, golden sand. There is hardly anyone to be seen, if you discount the odd, adventurous foreign tourist who has come to check out if there is truly a place which offers complete solitude amidst virgin surroundings.

Then there are the groves of coconut and other wind-bearing trees that offer shelter from the scorching Sun. The nearby river provides fresh water while the fine sand makes sunbathing a must-do activity. That’s not all. One can see the shells lying on the sea-bed through the blue, crystal clear waters reminding you of Mauritius but without the facilities offered by the tourist hotspot. However, this heaven-on-earth called Belekaana Beach will soon vanish.

Why will it vanish? Because of the Tadadi Thermal Power Project, a 4,000 megawatt capacity power project which…

…will use the entire beach and fill up the entire stretch and surroundings with effluents, slurry and the frozen slush of fly-ash, signalling the death of a beautiful beach.

Maybe a short power cut every day state-wide would make the power plant unnecessary and save the beach. Or a renewable energy plant. Or a plant that doesn’t destroy a beach.

I don’t know about you but I’ll take the sound of the waves on a sea-shore over sound of machines at a power plant any day.

Coming soon: Power cuts

From today’s Deccan Herald front page:

KPTCL has decided to resort to load shedding across the State, including Bangalore, for at least half an hour in the next few days. “There is shortage of power due to technical problem at Nagajhari project. There will be unscheduled load shedding,” KPTCL Managing Director Bharat Lal Meena said. All six generators of Nagajhari underground project in Uttara Kannada stopped functioning on Friday due to tripping of the system, resulting in shortage of nearly 800 mw of power.

Republic day gift you think?

Seriously though, it makes sense to watch the power you use. Simple things like turning off lights and fans can make a difference. You can get more power-saving ideas from Bescom, and AP Power.

If everyone chips in, we all can benefit because if we reduce consumption, there won’t be need for power cuts. That’s as good a reason as any.

Nano, not from Apple, but Tata

Tata Motors unveiled its people’s car, dubbed the Nano, yesterday and the news outlets are going ga-ga over the car. The Times of India had a lot of coverage in today’s paper and the TV channels are also abuzz. You can read Ratan Tata’s interview here.

My first thought on hearing the name was, Nano? The iPod already has a strong brand and it seems like an unnecessary repetition. No other names?

The car itself looks like a cross between a Reva and a (Hyundai) Santro, which is to say that it looks different. You have to say that it’s pretty impressive to make a car that costs so less and that supposedly meets safety standards.

I’ve heard people complain about how this car would add to the traffic woes we already have because this car is much more affordable. In that case, all car manufacturers should be targeted, not just the small car manufacturers. So, it’s unfair to single out Tata for this treatment just because they’re making affordable cars.

The other concern that I’m reading about is the environmental impact. Tata has said that the emission standards from the car are better than those of two wheelers but if I am not mistaken two wheelers have lower emission standards than cars anyway. (Someone with a better idea of this, please add your thoughts in the comments.) Again, it seems unfair to single out this car for environmental concerns when we should be looking at all cars.

The problem comes when you consider that cars tend to replace two wheelers and this is especially true in the case of the Tata Nano. Two wheelers do not take up as much space as cars and the mileage of two wheelers is usually far better than cars. Factor in AC and you’re using up more energy. I think the emissions-only criterion isn’t enough but again this is for all cars.

For my part, I would’ve loved to see Tata do something of a cleaner car, something with renewable energy, or something that had partially clean energy. It was not unthinkable since Tata is doing work in the solar energy field in a joint venture with BP. Maybe they’ll come up with it next.

Hats off to Tata Motors for pulling this off though, in spite of the naysayers.