If recent forecasts for huge upticks in internet and computer usage are correct, the electricity grid in the US could be headed for a disaster. One analyst is estimating the US needs to add about 146,000 Mw of new capacity to restore capacity margins to 15%.
�Online populations are expected to nearly double in the next few years for both business and home usage,� financial analyst Fred Schultz writes in a Raymond James & Associates report. High tech pundits say that by 2002 nearly 50 million business users will regularly use the internet. That�s about double the 25.4 million users of 1998.
�Just look behind a desk today and you will find a power strip with six to eight plugs attached these days,� says Schultz.
Computers and all those peripherals used for internet access use electricity and lots of it. The share of electricity consumed in the US that is used by computers was about 8% in 1998, about 15% today, and will reach 25% by the end of the decade, says Schultz. But yet the average reserves in electricity capacity have fallen to 20-year lows of less than 15%.
Schultz says that all this computer use to get to the internet is stimulating demand growth for electricity. Given the steady increase in gross domestic product, add to it the explosion of technology and internet- related use, and electric demand is forecast to increase by a robust 3% a year.
He also argues that residential demand for electricity is starting to increase much more rapidly again after a long period of stagnation. Besides the growth of computer use, homes on average have increased in gross square footage and air conditioning is almost standard in the newer bigger houses. Geographically, air conditioning is now more commonly relied upon in areas of the country like the Midwest, Great Lakes region, and Northeast than before.
The internet's impact as a new source of electricity demand can hardly be over stated. The number of page creations on the internet have exploded requiring more servers. There are 2.1 million web pages on the internet right now and about 7.3 million new pages are added every day.
The internet is about to double in size again next year. A server or web server is basically the computer program that serves requested HTML pages or files. To improve security and efficiency of the servers internet service providers have been building farms for servers that companies buy or lease space in.
To get an idea of how much these farms have grown, Yahoo started with two servers in 1995. Now it requires 70 servers. The server farms use about 100 w/sq ft. There are about 7-9 million sq ft of server farms in the US, and that number is expected to triple to an estimated 23�25 million sq ft this year.
As demand for floor space explodes to accommodate server growth, electric power consumption will also. But the supply of electricity has not kept up with this demand. Skyrocketing summer peak prices and reliability problems are now common throughout the nation.
Capacity reserve margins have been declining for the last 20 years (capacity margin is the difference between the available generating capacity during peak summer conditions and the actual peak load). Average capacity margins were up to almost 29% in 1982, but today it�s less than half of that.
At 3% demand growth, the US needs an incremental 24,000 Mw/year, says Raymond James. That will require building power plants on a scale never before attempted.
From 1999 through 2003 about 160,000 Mw of gas-fired generation have been announced, according to calculations by Raymond James, but industry experts say it's hard to say how much will actually get built.
�The already-strained electric power grid is about to be bombarded with demand the likes of which it has never seen,� says Schultz in the report. �As a country we have two options�build power plants and work on commercialization of distributed generation�or start getting used to reading by candle light.�