October 9, 2000
Bush, Coal & the Internet
By Sam Parry
In a major address on energy policy, George W. Bush offered a surprising assessment of the Internet as a heavy drain on the nation’s electrical grid and a factor forcing the United States toward a costly new round of power-plant construction, including more coal-fired generators and nuclear reactors.
Bush’s comment about the Internet-as-fuel-guzzler flew in the face of widespread scientific opinion that the Internet and other technological advances have eased the U.S. economy’s reliance on energy, not made it worse.
Yet, on Sept. 29, the Republican presidential nominee said, “Today, the equipment needed to power the Internet consumes 8 percent of all the electricity produced in the United States.” Bush cited this fast-growing energy demand as a justification for drilling in new oil fields, including Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Reserve, and for increased burning of coal.
Though his remarks about the Internet were remarkable, they attracted virtually no attention in the national news media. There were no questions put to the Republican nominee about his unusual view that the Internet-driven New Economy was wasting rather than saving energy – nor did the press bother to find out who supplied Bush with his curious data.
What Bush did not explain – and what the press did not deign to find out – was that Bush’s claim about the Internet’s energy use came from a study commissioned by a coal-industry group that endorses the view that more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is good – not bad – for the earth.
Also not mentioned by Bush was that the coal industry’s Internet study concluded that the United States must undertake a $1 trillion investment in new power plants to meet energy demands supposedly created by the Internet and other new technologies.
Though Bush cited the 8 percent figure as fact, the estimate is vigorously challenged by many energy experts as a wild exaggeration of the Internet’s energy requirements and as a gross distortion of the underlying reality that the high-tech New Economy has achieved significant net savings in energy use.
Bush’s Internet energy figure can be traced to a 1999 study entitled “The Internet Begins with Coal,” written by Mark Mills, president of Mills McCarthy & Associates Inc. Based on Mills’s personal calculations, the study states, “The electricity appetite of the equipment on the Internet has grown from essentially nothing 10 years ago to 8 percent of the total U.S. electricity consumption today.”
Mills goes on to predict that “it now seems reasonable to forecast that in the foreseeable future, certainly within two decades, the direct and indirect needs of the Internet will consume 30-50 percent of the nation’s energy supply.”
To meet that demand, Mills says, will require a $1 trillion investment “in a hard-power backbone to supply electricity.” Mills warns that “while environmentalists want to substantially reduce coal use in making electricity, there is no chance of meeting future economically driven and Internet-accelerated electric demand without retaining and expanding the coal component.”
According to a summary of Mills’s report, published at the Web site, www.fossilfuels.org, the Internet project grew “out of an inquiry by Greening Earth Society president Fred Palmer.” Mills also is listed as a scientific adviser to the Greening Earth Society, a think tank dedicated to the proposition that the rising level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is beneficial to the earth, not the “greenhouse” threat to the environment that many scientists see.
The Greening Earth Society, however, is not a disinterested scientific body. It was established by the Western Fuels Association, a cooperative owned by seven coal-burning utilities mostly in the West and Midwest. According to the latest annual report, the Western Fuels Association delivered 22.7 million tons of coal to member utilities in 1999. Greening Earth Society president Palmer, who commissioned the Internet study, also is Western Fuel’s chief executive.
For environmentalists, the implication of Bush’s embrace of these coal-industry projections about future electrical demands is dire. Coal is a major polluter of the land and water as well as the air.
Coal is considered a principal source of greenhouse gas emissions, which contribute to global warming. The Energy Information Administration of the U.S. Energy Department estimates that burning coal releases 36 percent of the total greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.
Almost as troubling is Bush’s acceptance of highly dubious and self-interested science as a basis for national policy under a Bush-Cheney administration.
In terms of science, many energy experts sharply dispute Bush's claim that the Internet uses 8 percent of the nation’s electricity and his suggestion that new technology is adding pressure to the nation’s electrical grid.
Analysts for the Lawrence Berkeley National Labs and the Center for Energy and Climate Solutions calculate the Internet is drawing about 1 percent of U.S. electricity, while helping to achieve an historic shift toward energy conservation for the country.
Traditionally, U.S. economic growth, as measured by the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), has tracked almost precisely the nation’s energy consumption. When the economy has grown, energy use has increased at about the same rate, a trend that has held until the Internet-dominated New Economy of the past several years.
Advanced technology seems to have produced substantial energy savings, these studies found. For instance, in the immediate "pre-Internet era" of 1993-1996, the U.S. GDP grew an average of 3.2 percent per year, while electricity demand grew 2.9 percent per year, a ratio of 1.1 to 1. In contrast, the "Internet era" of 1997-2000 has averaged 4.2 percent economic growth per year while averaging 2.2 percent annual growth in electricity demand, a ratio of 1.9 to 1.
These figures indicate that the economy achieved a near doubling of efficiency in terms of electricity use in the Internet era than in the pre-Internet period.
What's more, this analysis does not account for the fuel saved by people who now do their reading, shopping, and communicating online rather than traveling to the neighborhood library or local mall or sending regular mail through the postal service.
Factoring in other types of energy, such as gasoline, the pre-Internet period of 1993-1996 saw a 2.3 percent increase in total energy demand while the 1997-2000 Internet period saw energy demand increase only 1 percent per year.
All this while Americans were increasingly driving more fuel-inefficient sports utility vehicles, spending more time in traffic and using more home heating and cooling due to the extreme weather patterns of 1998 and 1999.
These figures contradict the assumptions underlying Gov. Bush’s energy policy address. Beyond that, Bush’s acceptance of a coal-industry-financed study as the foundation for U.S. government policy suggests an energy agenda during a Bush-Cheney administration tilting toward segments of the business community most opposed to environmental protections.