Friday, April 02, 2010

Greenpeace and The World As It Is

bobhome1p We’re sure all of us would like to live in a world where nuclear energy and renewable energy sources – and some natural gas and maybe even some coal with carbon sequestration – powered our lives. But that’s not the world we live in – yet – and most of us have rather limited choices about living our lives in a carbon-free environment.

This would be true even if you could hear windmills in the morning or see the nuclear plant’s cooling towers off in the misty distance. Electricity providers can help with carbon offsets, but for the most part, how electricity whips through the grid and gets to your house is difficult to quantify by source except in general terms.

So this gave us pause:

As the internet grows as a platform — a place where more things are done, not only stored away — the IT industry's hunger for energy will increase. Efficiency is a hot topic in IT, but improving energy efficiency is only part of the solution, the industry also needs to take responsibility for where it gets its energy from in the first place. Simply put: Will the cloud run on coal or renewable energy?

We’d add nuclear energy, but that’s a fight for another day. To us, this smacks of a purity test. Here’s a little more from Greenpeace’s Daniel Kessler:

If we hope to phase out dirty sources of energy to address climate change, then - given the massive amounts of electricity needed in order to run computers, provide backup power and coordinate related cooling equipment that even energy-efficient data centres consume - the last thing we need is for more cloud infrastructure to be built in places where it increases demand for dirty coal-fired power.

Well, no, nothing increases the demand for more “dirty coal-fired power” any more than it increases the demand for more wind power. Locating a data center in one place or another does not increase or lessen the demand for a type of electricity generation by virtue of its siting. If the goal is to bleed away the need for coal-fired plants, this kind of action won’t do it.

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Greenpeace suggests that IT company employ their “might” to advocate for change that Greenpeace wants.

We are calling on IT industry giants to put their might behind government policies that give priority grid access for renewable sources like wind and solar energy. IT companies should also support economy-wide climate and energy policies around the world that peak climate emissions by 2015.

But don’t they already do this?  Here’s IBM (fancy brochure – take a look at the whole thing):

With businesses and societies facing often volatile energy supplies, a smart grid can save electricity and money and the planet, by linking smart meters in the home with instrumented power lines and plants. And it even paves the way to integrate renewable sources like wind and solar. IBM today is leading seven of the world’s top 10 automated meter projects.

And Microsoft:

Making environmental stewardship part of our business relationships. At Microsoft, we strive to incorporate our environmental principles into our business relationships. We seek similar commitments to the environment from our major suppliers. We participate in industry groups to set industry standards on environmental practices.

And Google, which responds most directly to Greenpeace (that we found):

Our business powers the platforms that drive the Internet. With hundreds of millions of Google users, it takes extensive computer infrastructure to keep our tools and services running. And that takes a lot of electricity. Generating that electricity requires energy, and as our business grows, we want to make sure we minimize our impact on the Earth's climate. So we’re taking every step we can to produce electricity using renewable energy resources that don't add to the production of greenhouse gas emissions.

So we’re not sure about this one. Greenpeace has had success in making computers “greener” and may see the industry as one that it can effectively push in a desirable direction. Data centers take up about 1.5% of current electric capacity in the U.S. and Google is now in a position to buy and sell electricity itself. So there’s potential here – we’re just not sure we need Greenpeace pushing it in quite this way. 

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In a way, Greenpeace is simply in the right place here. With its headquarters in Amsterdam, we’re sure it takes advantage of what’s available to it:

Many suppliers offer green power (groene stroom). Also termed sustainable power, green power is electricity produced from environmentally friendly sources such as wind, sun, organic matter or water power. Green power is available from some suppliers at no extra cost; others charge a higher rate.

But it seems to us that IT companies have developed a pretty impressive profile on this subject and effectively walk the line between the world we live in now and the world that’s coming.

Microsoft Bob, release in 1995, was an attempt by the software giant to give Windows 3.1 an interface usable by computer neophytes. Heavily dependent on guides (avatars like the little dog in the screenshot that constantly offered help) and a suite of simplified home-oriented programs, Bob replaced the folder and file interface with rooms in which programs could be placed on the shelves. It was dreadful – resource-hungry, condescending and gaudy – and died within a year. You can read more about Bob here. (My first PC – after a decade as a Commodore fan – came with Bob, which quickly found itself supplanted with OS/2. Still have the Bob disk, though.)

9 comments:

gmax137 said...

I guess I don't get your point here. Are you faulting Greenpeace for advocating clean energy generation? And this so-called 'purity test' - it seems to me that as long as the electric customers and society ask the utility company one question ('what's the lowest rate per kw-hr I can get') then the utility will continue to generate those kw-hr at the lowest cost, without consideration to anything else. So, if the customers ask more of the generators ('and make it clean') then maybe we can make some progress. Sounds reasonable.

There's plenty left to bash Greenpeace about. Personally, I think that organization is reprehensible. Opportunistic scam artists, bilking the well meaning but ignorant and naive into contributing, they encourage criminal acts which are tolerated only because they play off the 'underdog fighting the good fight' against the system, or against the greedy pigs who make a living by desecrating mother earth.

But that doesn't mean that we (all of us) don't need to start thinking about where the kw-hrs are coming from. Ignorance is no excuse for business-as-usual.

Brian Mays said...

"dreadful – resource-hungry, condescending and gaudy"

That pretty well describes Greenpeace.

dkantz said...

As T.Friedman details in Hot, Flat and Crowded, the public (through regulators) has, so far, only asked electric utilities for cheap, all-you-can-use electrons with mitigation of Hg, NOs & SOs.

We are now starting to ask for electricity free of CO2 emissions. Greenpeace's "David vs. Goliath," or maybe even "terrorist vs. robber baron" personna is well understood, and they are to be applauded for using their clout to help the public focus on this critically necessary change of mindset and market reality. And, as are mentioned in this article, so are the appropriate efforts of specific "Goliaths" and "robber barons."

Greenpeace exists within a market and social reality overloaded with inequalities and inequities. Singling out Greenpeace as "reprehensible," "dreadful," condescending," etc. without similarly pointing verbal fingers at their antagonists (but probably amplified) is to indulge in selective vision.

One more thing. The consumers' question needs to move FROM "what's the lowest-rate-per-kW-we-can-get-any-time-we-want-it" TO "how can we tailor time-of-use so that generating capacity of utilities is freed from being driven by peak loads."

Yes, that's asking more of the utilities -- and of ourselves. But electric utilities have been operating according to a business plan crafted and sold by Samuel Insull, the commercial protege of Thomas Edison over 100 years ago. Growing demand for ever scarcer natural resources, transfer of wealth to oil-rich petrodictatorships, disruptive climate change, energy poverty, and biodiversity loss are the realities informing us that We, the People, should have insisted on updating our energy policies to include "Electric Grid 2.0" at least a generation ago.

Sterling Archer said...

An excellent idea, dkantz! But we just spent all of our discretionary income for the next three or four generations on health care reform (so-called). America just proved our priorities have nothing to do with sustainability or ecology.

So, what's your alternate plan? That doesn't cost any of that money we don't have?

Finrod said...

The consumers' question needs to move FROM "what's the lowest-rate-per-kW-we-can-get-any-time-we-want-it" TO "how can we tailor time-of-use so that generating capacity of utilities is freed from being driven by peak loads."

I predict sweeping electroral victory for any political party which promises to reverse such a policy if any incumbent government in the industrialised world is deluded enough to implement it in the first place.

Bikerman said...

Finrod: I LOLed.

People need to cook in electric stoves when they want to eat. They need refrigerators to work 24/7 or their food will spoil. People want heat in their dwellings when it is dark and still and cold in the winter.

What kind of "time-of-use generating capacity" will accommodate these things?

Anonymous said...

"...we spent all our discretionary income for the next 3 or 4 generations" – are you suggesting we wait 3 or 4 generations for someone else to design a better system then? Warning: that thinking makes it unlikely there'll be a 3rd or 4th generation from now.

So, Sterling Archer asks: “What’s the plan. How do we pay for it?” OK. Let’s adopt T. Friedman’s approach (Hot, Flat, and Crowded) and avoid the doubling of atmospheric CO2 by mid-century. That means (globally) we need to avoid the emission of 200 billion tons of carbon as we grow between now and then. Choose your favorite 8 out of these 15 (that’s more than half of these options):
• Double fuel efficiency of 2 billion cars from 30 to 60 MPG
• Drive 2 billion cars only 5,000 miles/year rather than 10,000 @ 30 MPG
• Raise efficiency at 1,600 large coal-fired plants from 40 to 60%
• Replace 1,400 large coal-fired plants with natural-gas powered facilities
• Install carbon capture and sequestration capacity at 800 large coal-fired plants, so CO2 can be stored underground.
• Install carbon capture and sequestration at new coal plants that would produce hydrogen for 1.5 billion hydrogen-powered vehicles.
• Install carbon capture and sequestration at 180 coal gasification plants.
• Add twice today’s current global nuclear capacity to replace coal-based electricity.
• Increase wind power 40 fold to displace all coal-fired power.
• Increase solar power 700 fold to displace all coal-fired power.
• Increase wind power 80 fold to make hydrogen for clean cars.
• Drive 2 billion cars on ethanol using 1/6th of the world’s cropland to grow the needed corn.
• Halt all cutting and burning of forests.
• Adopt conservation tillage, which emits much less CO2 from the land, in all agricultural soils worldwide.
• Cut electricity use in homes, offices and stores by 25%.

How do we pay for such changes? What if the yardsticks measuring the condition of the global economy move away from Gross Domestic Product and toward Gross Happiness Index or Genuine Progress Indicator or the like – wouldn’t there likely be funding freed up from lobbying, income disparities on the order of 350:1, reduced costs of purchasing energy, etc.? So Finrod predicts political disaster for any entities trying to nurture this future. Well, yeah, if citizens do not demand responsible, sustainable, just leadership, gridlock will remain our status quo. Are you predicting that a ruling majority of citizens will remain that ignorant? How long?

Time-of-use is a ready to be incorporated into the architecture of the national electric grid. Refrigerators, washing machines, coffee pots, etc. do NOT operate 24/7. Can a market be designed and put into place that encourages us to tailor our cooking (or whatever) schedules according to economic incentives? Of course! The US electricity market is operating according to a design that’s over a hundred years old. Redesign is long overdue.

Finrod said...

What if the yardsticks measuring the condition of the global economy move away from Gross Domestic Product and toward Gross Happiness Index or Genuine Progress Indicator or the like – wouldn’t there likely be funding freed up from lobbying, income disparities on the order of 350:1, reduced costs of purchasing energy, etc.? So Finrod predicts political disaster for any entities trying to nurture this future. Well, yeah, if citizens do not demand responsible, sustainable, just leadership, gridlock will remain our status quo. Are you predicting that a ruling majority of citizens will remain that ignorant? How long?

I said what I said in relation to dkantz' flowery espousal of randomised power rationing.

Choose your favorite 8 out of these 15 (that’s more than half of these options):

I don't want to chose eight options. I don't think you have eight options worth chosing there. You have one that is, though:

Add twice today’s current global nuclear capacity to replace coal-based electricity.

I propose we do this one eight times. That should provide enough power for electricity, synthetic fuel, fertilizer, process heat, desalination and whatnot for everyone in the world... and if it doesn't, we'll do it enough extra times untill it does.

dkantz said...

digitial snafu aside, dkantz = the previous anonymous