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Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Big Tech’s AI Datacenters Demand Electricity. Are They Increasing Use of Fossil Fuels? – Slashdot

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The artificial intelligence revolution will demand more electricity, warns the Washington Post. “Much more…”

They warn that the “voracious” electricity consumption of AI is driving an expansion of fossil fuel use in America — “including delaying the retirement of some coal-fired plants.”

As the tech giants compete in a global AI arms race, a frenzy of data center construction is sweeping the country. Some computing campuses require as much energy as a modest-sized city, turning tech firms that promised to lead the way into a clean energy future into some of the world’s most insatiable guzzlers of power. Their projected energy needs are so huge, some worry whether there will be enough electricity to meet them from any source… A ChatGPT-powered search, according to the International Energy Agency, consumes almost 10 times the amount of electricity as a search on Google. One large data center complex in Iowa owned by Meta burns the annual equivalent amount of power as 7 million laptops running eight hours every day, based on data shared publicly by the company…

[Tech companies] argue advancing AI now could prove more beneficial to the environment than curbing electricity consumption. They say AI is already being harnessed to make the power grid smarter, speed up innovation of new nuclear technologies and track emissions…. “If we work together, we can unlock AI’s game-changing abilities to help create the net zero, climate resilient and nature positive works that we so urgently need,” Microsoft said in a statement.

The tech giants say they buy enough wind, solar or geothermal power every time a big data center comes online to cancel out its emissions. But critics see a shell game with these contracts: The companies are operating off the same power grid as everyone else, while claiming for themselves much of the finite amount of green energy. Utilities are then backfilling those purchases with fossil fuel expansions, regulatory filings show… heavily polluting fossil fuel plants that become necessary to stabilize the power grid overall because of these purchases, making sure everyone has enough electricity.
The article quotes a project director at the nonprofit Data & Society, which tracks the effect of AI and accuses the tech industry of using “fuzzy math” in its climate claims. “Coal plants are being reinvigorated because of the AI boom,” they tell the Washington Post. “This should be alarming to anyone who cares about the environment.”

The article also summarzies a recent Goldman Sachs analysis, which predicted data centers would use 8% of America’s total electricity by 2030, with 60% of that usage coming “from a vast expansion in the burning of natural gas. The new emissions created would be comparable to that of putting 15.7 million additional gas-powered cars on the road.”

“We all want to be cleaner,” Brian Bird, president of NorthWestern Energy, a utility serving Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska, told a recent gathering of data center executives in Washington, D.C. “But you guys aren’t going to wait 10 years … My only choice today, other than keeping coal plants open longer than all of us want, is natural gas. And so you’re going see a lot of natural gas build out in this country.”
Big Tech responded by “going all in on experimental clean-energy projects that have long odds of success anytime soon,” the article concludes. “In addition to fusion, they are hoping to generate power through such futuristic schemes as small nuclear reactors hooked to individual computing centers and machinery that taps geothermal energy by boring 10,000 feet into the Earth’s crust…”

Some experts point to these developments in arguing the electricity needs of the tech companies will speed up the energy transition away from fossil fuels rather than undermine it. “Companies like this that make aggressive climate commitments have historically accelerated deployment of clean electricity,” said Melissa Lott, a professor at the Climate School at Columbia University.

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