Energy demand surge: a looming crisis

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big data, information, technology

By Cylvia Hayes

In early June 2024, I was listening to an NPR segment on AI. The fellow being interviewed was in the AI industry. At one point the show host asked him what he thought about the electricity requirements of AI. He noted it was a big issue and that the industry didn’t have a clear path for meeting the enormous energy needs or dealing with the related climate change emissions. He said it was probably going to require nuclear fusion. Just a reminder here – nuclear fusion doesn’t exist.

The term “out over your skis” means careening forward, a little out of control, very likely headed for a faceplant. This is the position humanity is in when it comes to energy demand. All indicators are that global demand for electricity is going to continue to grow dramatically driven by population growth, industrialization in less-mechanized nations, and the massive demands of AI.

The Pacific Northwest of the United States, where I live, is a major hub of data centers for mega-tech giants and electricity demand in the region is expected to grow 30% over the next decade. Utilities are scrambling to figure out how to expand the transmission capacity required for the increased load. All of us utility customers will wind up footing this bill.

A glimmer of good news is that renewables are rapidly increasing and will account for a growing percentage of overall electricity generation. The International Energy Agency (IEA)* predicts that, “record-setting electricity generation from low-emissions sources – comprising renewables, such as solar, wind and hydro, as well as nuclear power – should reduce the role of fossil fuels in providing power for homes and businesses”. At first glance this seems a good thing, but alas, look a little closer. The IEA has included nuclear and hydro in this mix. Nuclear plants may not pump out much CO2 but they generate completely nonrecyclable, deadly radioactive waste that has to be stored for hundreds of thousands of years. In addition, the construction of nuclear plants requires enormous amounts of steel and cement, which are created through energy intensive processes that are among the largest global emitters of carbon. Hydroelectric dams do generate low-emission electricity but decimate river system and riparian areas. Also, note the IEA statement says that lower-emission sources, “should” reduce the role of fossil fuels. Yep, we’re careening, and at some point, this utterly unsustainable growth trajectory is going to faceplant.

Enter the era of post-growth and societal redesign. I suspect for many the idea of a major societal disruption is frightening, but I don’t feel that way. I believe when the crash lands large numbers of us are going to rise to a higher level, demonstrate our nobler aspects, and get busy creating something much better. There are a number of ways of visualizing this disruptive shift. Joanna Macy has called it the “Great Turning”. My friend and colleague Nate Hagens calls it the “Great Simplification”. Some have called it the ”Great Unravelling”. I prefer to think of it as the Great Redesign.

I do suspect this period will be very challenging and a lot of it will be a bumpy ride, but I also believe aspects will be exciting and creativity will be flowing. And, as is often the case in collective challenges, there will be beauty we hadn’t expected. I’m buoyed by the sense that a post-rampant consumerism, post-limitless-growth economic system could be immeasurably more enjoyable than the rat-race we’re currently running.

So often, when I challenge extractive Capitalism, I’m accused of being a socialist, or even a communist. I’m none of the above. I don’t believe we’ve yet created an economic system suited for our current predicament which includes, among other things, the sheer magnitude of the human population, development of technologies that strip the forests, oceans and wildlife far faster than they can regrow and rebound, and a changed and changing climate.

Though I don’t yet have the full picture of a new system, I have spent a lot of time contemplating and studying the subject and have identified some key pieces. First, one of the primary components of a system that would be compatible with a healthy, livable planet would be the evolution from an extraction-based economy to a restoration-based one. This would involve transitioning extractive industries like natural resources mining into next-generation industries such as mining minerals and metals from landfills and waste barrens.

The new system would recognize laws of physics and ecology and would shift from the current limitless-growth approach to more of a steady-state methodology. The emphasis would be on utilizing Earth’s resources at a pace that enables ecological regeneration. An aspect of this would be an emphasis on giving everyone opportunities to have enough rather than beating the manic drum of more, more, more for some.

I envision the new system employing biomimicry, copying nature’s innate wisdom. For example, in nature there is no waste. The poop from one thing becomes the food for another. Nature does not create city-sized piles of garbage and toxins that cannot be processed. I see no reason humans could not redesign our approach to materials to be zero-waste through thoughtful product design, serious investment in the recycling industry, and bans on certain materials and chemicals.

Supply chains would be far more localized. There would be fundamental shifts in what governments and tax-payers do and don’t subsidize. Financial and tax policies and systems would be restructured so that the main emphasis is not on enabling the wealthy to make money off their money, but empowering everybody else to achieve a meaningful standard of living, and basic financial security. Resources and overall opportunity would be redistributed so that people had clear pathways for rising out of poverty, particularly generational poverty.

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The new system will be more about personal, community, and opportunity growth rather than growth in consumption and accumulation of stuff. Under such a model far fewer people will have to work awful jobs just to pay basic bills and feed themselves.

In the redesigned society our eco-anxiety and grief will be replaced by the joy of witnessing Earth heal and hopeful anticipation for what comes next.

I know this probably seems far-fetched, but stories, vision, and imagination have creative, generative power, and, pessimism is not an effective survival strategy.

While working on this piece, I’ve also been prepping for a Spiritual Economics class I’ll be offering in the coming weeks. One of the main texts is Eric Butterworth’s book titled, Spiritual Economics. Butterworth writes, “More and more economists are coming to agree that the word economy does not refer to a monolithic entity but rather to a financial climate chiefly influenced by the collective consciousness of the populace.” I write and speak about these topics, tilt the windmill of economic system change, because I believe consciousness matters and the more of us thinking about a new and better way, the more likely we are to land in powder rather than rocks and to get our skis righted and gliding smoothly afterwards.

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