Intel’s New Microchip and Dominion’s New Transmission Line

Intel has overcome one of the great technical hurdles to designing faster, more energy-efficient computer chips: the tendency of computer chips to leak electric current and generate excess heat. Intel was planning to make its announcement today, according to the New York Times, and IBM, close behind, says it plans to introduce a new energy-efficient chip in early 2008. Writes the NYT:

Many executives in the industry say that Intel is still recovering from a strategic wrong turn it made when the company pushed its chips to extremely high clock speeds — the ability of a processor to calculate more quickly. That obsession with speed at any cost left the company behind its competitors in shifting to low-power alternatives.

The ramifications of a new generation of high-powered, low-energy computer chips will be far reaching. Analysts suggested that it could become possible, for example, for cell phones to play video at length with less battery drain.

There could be implications for Virginia as well. The expanding Northern Virginia economy is running short of electric capacity, and Dominion is predicting that the region will see rolling blackouts as soon as 2011 unless it can build a new high-voltage electric line to import cheap Midwest electricity. Electricity demand has increased 40 percent in the region over the past decade, says Dominion, and “even the most aggressive conservation programs would not alleviate the need for new power stations or transmission lines.”

About two-thirds of that increase occurred as a result of population growth (13.7 percent between 2000 and 2005 alone, according to the Weldon Cooper Center.) I don’t know for a fact, but I would conjecture that the balance in the surge of electricity consumption came from the proliferation of computers in Northern Virginia’s Information Technology-intensive economy, in particular of energy-hogging “server farms.” As a global center of Internet traffic, Northern Virginia is home to a large number of these facilities which consume as much electricity as small cities. Literally. According to a 2001 C/Net news article:

U.S. Dataport, a company in San Jose, Calif., that planned a $1.2 billion server farm that would be the world’s largest data center. It called for 10 huge air-conditioned warehouses on 174 acres that would constantly draw 180 megawatts of electricity–about enough to provide energy for all the homes in a city the size of Honolulu.

And this, from (dated November 2006):

Here’s just one amazing factoid: According to a study last year by Lawrence Berkeley National Lab (download – PDF): “A single high-powered rack of servers consumes enough energy in a single year to power a hybrid car across the United States 337 times.”

That’s not all. Additional power is needed to remove the huge quantity of heat generated by these newer machines. If the machines aren’t cooled sufficiently, they can shut down, with potentially devastating consequences to affected businesses, agencies, or other organizations. All told, server farms consume many times more energy than office facilities of equivalent size.

The Gartner Group has projected that energy costs, which represent less than 10 percent of a typical company’s Information Technology budget, could rise to more than 50 percent in the next few years. No wonder Dominion is worried about rolling blackouts in Northern Virginia!

The implication, however, is that Dominion needs to build the transmission line as much to meet the needs of Northern Virginia’s computers as of its people. Northern Virginia localities love server farms because they generate huge tax revenues. Of course, Northern Virginia localities don’t incur the cost of transmitting electricity to their region. No, the residents of Virginia’s piedmont pay those costs : Their land gets condemned to make way for the transmission towers.

But Intel’s announcement scrambles the forecasts. Intel now can configure its computer chips to maximize speed or to minimize power. The mix will depend, undoubtedly, on market forces, especially the cost and availability of electricity. If electricity is scarce and/or expensive, businesses will demand more low-power chips. That line of reasoning suggests that the potential for energy conservation in Northern Virginia is far greater than anyone had assumed.

In light of this news, Dominion needs to revisit its power forecasts for Northern Virginia, and it needs to revisit its assumption that conservation “can’t alleviate the need for new power plants and transmission lines.”

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4 responses to “Intel’s New Microchip and Dominion’s New Transmission Line”

  1. E M Risse Avatar

    These are important happenings and insights, but:

    The vast majority of energy is used to support dysfunctional settlment patterns:

    Gasoline / Petro Chems (and energy to create substitutes for gasoline and Petro Chems) to overcome spacial dysfunction.

    Loss of electricity from low voltage distribution to scattered urban land uses, especially scattered urban dwellings.

    Waste of energy heating and cooling dysfunctionally located and poorly constructed buildings.

    Wasted illumination that does nothing but dim the night sky.

    Wasted energy in extraction, manufacturing, fabrication, assembly and distribution due to subsidized energy and transport system cost.

    Wasted energy from using ineffecient shared vehicles — e.g. aircraft rather than rails for high speed ground transport and boats.

    Add those up and you have over 50 percent and perhaps as much as 60 percent of the energy consumption that is wasted and could be saved with functional settlement patterns.

    It turns out these more functional patterns of settlement are the ones most favored by citizens if they have a choice.


  2. Groveton Avatar

    Where to start?

    1. Where do you think these power lines go when they get to the “Northern Virginia border”? Into the ozone? No – they just keep on going right across Northern Virginia depressing the property values there too.

    2. The energy leaked from chips creates heat which has to be dissipated and that takes power. Yes. However, chips still suck down a lot of power and the total number of chips keeps on growing. The new chips will help but I don’t see a miracle.

    4. The proliferation of server farms in NOVA was brought about by the location of a major internet access point in NOVA called MAE East. It’s located in the Tyson’s area. Back when network was expensive it paid to locate server farms near this “peering point” even if power and labor were expensive. However, that equation has changed. Network is now cheap and power and labor are more expensive than ever. Guess what’s happening?

    4. Conjecture that “server farms” are pressing the envelope of power consumption in Northern Virginia is really conjecture. In fact, big builders of server farms are building them in places like central Oregon where the power and land is cheap. Then, the computers all around the country can access the servers in places like Oregon via the internet. This occurs because the cost of networking is dropping like a ston through water. If you want to see less power consumption from server farms in Northern Virginia – all you have to do is wait. NOVA’s high land cost / high power cost / high labor cost server farms are being replaced outside of the state as we speak.

    5. SUN Microsystems already has a rebate program with P,G&E in California. Companies who implement SUN’s Cool Thread (low power) server technology get a rebate from P,G&E. Sounds good to me – time for Dominion to act.

    I will make a simple proposal –

    If the State of Virginia guaratnees that all taxes collected in Northern Virginia will be spent in Northern Virginia (in perpetuity) then …

    Northern Virginia will pay the cost to bury any power lines running through the rest of Virginia needed to serve the people of Nothern Virginia (in perpetuity).

    Seems like a fair deal to me.

    Also, the comment that the extra pwoer needed in Northern Virginia is for the computers rather than the people is particularly bizarre. I am sure that you believe that those of us who live in Northern Virginia all plug our heads into electrical outlets everyday. However, it’s not true! No electricity is actually directly consumed by human beings in Northern Virginia. It’s all consumed by “electronical thing-a-ma-jigs” like computers and air conditioners and kidney dialysis machines.

  3. Anonymous Avatar

    It is not just the vehicles that are inefficient.

    Southwest Airlaines transports passengers for around 1.3 cents per mile.

    Care to guess what Amtrak and Metro figures are?

  4. Ray Hyde Avatar

    “If the State of Virginia guaratnees that all taxes collected in Northern Virginia will be spent in Northern Virginia (in perpetuity) then …

    Northern Virginia will pay the cost to bury any power lines running through the rest of Virginia needed to serve the people of Nothern Virginia (in perpetuity).

    Seems like a fair deal to me.”

    I agree.

    Surely it is more fair than charging 10x for services, when the services are mostly directed elsewhere.

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