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Sparks of creativity as energy and digital futures collide

Digital technologies consume way too much energy and present an environmental and sustainability issue that demands a fresh design approach

Very few commentators link the topics of energy and digital policy. Even fewer policy developers understand how they are intertwined.    

Each policy is on a single track but on a collision course with the other. Both engines of the economy urgently need to correct their course. Knocking heads together now can circumvent an even greater mess.

Only now are the full consequences of strategic decisions made in separate silos decades ago becoming clear. Attributing blame for current and future shortcomings is, alas, too easy, and doesn’t add up to a plan of where we go from here. First, though, everyone needs to understand that we have a problem.

Basically, the internet will not scale. As demand increases, so the performance of the digital infrastructure will suffer and energy supply become more fragile.

Regardless of which growth forecast you believe – and most insiders bet on a doubling of device numbers over the next decade – without radical overhaul, the predominant current and planned digital access technologies (how you get connected) will consume way too much energy. It is an environmental/sustainability issue that demands a fresh design approach to ensure the resilience of these basic utilities.

The solutions are twofold: to generate vastly more electricity or to waste far less of it on inefficient forms of digital connectivity. No one is suggesting that we put the entire economy into hibernation. 

The first option – greatly increasing power generation – is decidedly unattractive as well as hugely risky in terms of the UK’s energy supply security. But current efforts to reduce demand need rethinking.

The second option – boosting connection capacity while also using far less energy – is technologically possible but demands a complete rethink by dominant suppliers, whether they are in the fixed-line or mobile market or both. 

Digital management

It is simply not possible to summon sufficient future energy to push signals down copper cables or send mobile signals over great distances – ie more than 200 metres – given the sort of high-frequency spectrum that is now available.

All mobile services are themselves ultimately dependent on fixed-line connectivity to route to and from the wider internet. Moreover, the implications of using higher-frequency radio spectrum are that the much vaunted low-power 5G designs will be dependent on fibre connections from millions of locations and will look like Wi-Fi on steroids, with demands way beyond the creaking copper connections of yesteryear.   

How many slightly overlapping 200m-radius circles fit into the UK’s 65 million acres?  That, of course, is a hypothetical question – we live in a multichannel landscape – but, as digital applications accelerate, the current lack of any mobile coverage whatsoever for thousands of miles of UK roads illustrates the scale of the challenge.

Enthusiasts for maintaining the use of legacy copper networks point to technologies that seem to increase the capacity of those networks (if only in one direction), but these capacity-expanding technologies in turn exacerbate the energy challenges.

Their application is misplaced. Sure, you can run fibre all the way to a building and then use the technology to push the signals a little way further inside the building, but even that local in-building distribution is inefficient compared to low-power wireless technologies such as Wi-Fi.

Energy management

At the same time, energy management systems have developed to render past infrastructures obsolescent. The top-down view of energy – generators, the national grid, local distribution – is being turned on its head. Alternative energy sources – solar, wind, tidal, wave, ground heat pumps – are popping up all over the place. 

Soon the complexity of managing demand will be further complicated by new local storage options. One thing that will not help lessen the load is the current and expensively failing UK smart meters project.

Collision avoidance

So what if policy developers for both energy and digital understood each other better?

We don’t need to dwell on past mistakes, but to refocus minds on where they go from here.

For around the same investment cost as smart meters, the digital camp could reduce energy demand by between 5% and 10%, depending on how quickly they buckle down to eliminating copper networks. But, of course, much of that smart meter money has already been spent – some would say, wasted. 

On the other hand, the costs of fibre have been falling and the investment returns rising – a completely different investment scene to that prevailing two decades ago. The cost savings come from all aspects of network deployment. That could easily be accelerated by liberalising the incumbents’ passive infrastructure – the ducts and poles.

And the net benefit of this silo-fusion? Accelerated economic growth and greater energy supply security, massively faster connectivity and far fewer power failures. 

If only it was that easy to knock government and industry heads together to avoid an unexpected collision. Maybe, in our new-found love for devolution, city mayors will be resolved to point out that the utility emperors are lacking decent underwear.

Brace, brace. 

David Brunnen is editor of Groupe Intellex, director of the UK’s Foundation for Information Society Policy, and an RSA fellow

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