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Energy is fundamental to our society and that it's a scarce resource.
Guest post written by Cullen Bash
Cullen Bash is interm director of the HP Labs’ Sustainable Ecosystems Research Group.
Growing up in 1970’s Southern California, I was indelibly marked by a natural resource crisis. I clearly remember the rationing of gasoline during the OPEC oil embargo and how my dad, when filling up his VW Rabbit, would fill all the available air pockets in the gas tank by rocking the car gently, allowing us to drive a little further between station visits.
It wasn’t just gas that was expensive. My family stopped using electricity for lights and heat. We bought kerosene lamps for each room in the house and kerosene heaters to keep the larger rooms warm. Every night, we’d carefully light each lamp and heater, and then reverse the process before going to bed. To this day, when I catch a whiff of kerosene I’m immediately taken back to my childhood.
Eventually, the oil embargo lifted and the U.S. returned to a period of energy surplus and I became a researcher in the field of energy and sustainability; perhaps influenced by my childhood experiences.
I’d learned, after all, that energy is fundamental to our society and that it’s a scarce resource. But, I’d also seen how we can generate power in multiple ways. This reality enables the work that I do today in bringing high-performance information technology to communities around the world that still don’t have reliable power supplies.
As we move further into the 21st century, it’s clear that we are entering a period of resource depletion. The cause this time has less to do with geopolitics than a lack of the raw materials needed to generate energy in its various forms, especially fossil fuels. Countries like China and India that used relatively little fossil fuel throughout the 20th century now depend on it to drive their newfound prosperity. Developed economies like the United States and Europe, which benefited from a seemingly endless supply of energy in the last century, are now faced by its growing scarcity and are looking for ways to insure their economies against it.
One promising solution lies in micro-grid technology. Micro-grids are small energy generation systems that can power homes, neighborhoods, commercial and industrial businesses. They can run on fossil fuels, but also on local resources like the sun, wind and biogas. When connected together micro-grids can offer a renewable alternative to large scale power generation facilities.
There can be challenges with this approach, though. Solar grids generate power only when the sun is shining and the supply of wind-power is hard to predict. As a result, renewable resources often require expensive energy storage systems to distribute power upon demand.
But, something significant has happened since the 1970s: the exponential increase in the capability of IT. Computational power that filled large warehouses, know as data centers, 40 years ago now sits in a single portable device like a laptop or smart phone.
Most of us use this enormous computational power for social media and communication, but it can also manage the micro-grids of the future. Indeed, this is the foundation upon which the “smart grid,” a power distribution grid managed by IT, is envisioned.
At the same time, we’ve added intelligence to our cars, planes and mass-transit systems. It controls the lights in our offices, the temperature, and even the appliances in our homes. I remember watching the Jetsons during the OPEC crisis and marveling how automation had improved the lives of George and his family. A lot of that’s now here.
This merging of the physical and virtual is creating a class of devices we call cyber-physical systems. They perform physical functions like pumping water or cooling a room, while being connected to cyberspace. And because of that, energy demand can begin to be managed on mass-scale according to its availability.
IT data centers already do this. Recent research at HP Labs has shown that data centers, when connected to power micro-grids that use local resources for generating the facility’s electricity, can be managed in a manner that removes them completely from dependence on non-renewable resources like fossil fuels. We call these Net-Zero Energy Data Centers, because they can be operated independently from public utility grids and therefore have minimal impact on utility-level energy consumption.
In data centers we shift work that isn’t time-sensitive to a portion of the day when energy is more available, like mid-day if a solar micro-grid is deployed, and thus minimize non-renewable energy use and operational costs. The same idea can be applied to cyber-physical systems in general, shaping demand to the availability of energy by running operations like washing clothes or charging an electric car when power is most available.
With the processing power available today, we can manage millions of devices at once, up to the city-scale. The city itself, almost, becomes a computer. And just as crucially, micro-grid technology lets us bring the transformative power of IT into communities that have never had a reliable electricity network – impacting the billions of people who’ve yet to be touched by the IT revolution. Indeed, in an example of what’s called ‘reverse innovation,’ we’ll likely see micro-grids flourish first in energy-poor nations.
Even though global resource depletion continues to accelerate at unsustainable pace and scale, a lot has changed since my childhood of waiting in line for gasoline and burning kerosene for light. Much work needs to be done, but ideas like the Net-Zero Energy Data Center offer us all a path forward – and a huge opportunity to decelerate, and indeed reverse, our current course.
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