- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 15, 2001

By most measures, Intel chief Craig Barrett is just the kind of civic-minded, self-sacrificing executive that California is counting on to help the state overcome its dependence, even its addiction, to energy. He turns his office lights out during daylight hours, dims others and turns off the air-conditioning in the building as needed. On top of that, he runs a neatly trimmed chip-manufacturing business without creating the sort of pockmarked landscape and environmental degradation that comes with the operating instructions of old, hard-line manufacturing and mining operations.
It's all true, but Mr. Barrett is under no illusions that the solutions to California's energy problems are more Barretts and more Intels. Far from it. Mr. Barrett has announced that his company won't expand in the state's "Silicon Valley" or in California, now in its 30th day of a high-level "energy alert," because the possibility of rolling blackouts threatens to ruin his products and cost the company millions of dollars. While state officials pleaded with large users Wednesday to reduce their use, Mr. Barrett has said flatly that the state needs more electricity. "Nuclear power is the only answer," he told Bloomberg News, "but it's not politically correct."
In comments to the National Press Club earlier this month, Scott McNealy, founder and chairman of Sun Microsystems Inc., echoed those of Mr. Barrett. "I'm happy to take the lead and take the arrows if that's what it takes," he said, "but you know I think the politicians have got to step up and start driving this and come up with a better energy policy that includes nuclear power. Certainly Japan, Europe and all of our international competitors have figured that out."
Not only are people mentioning the "N"-word in public places these days, some are open to energy proposals considered all but politically impossible. The Bush administration has made clear that it would like to explore for oil in a disappearingly small portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, a frozen wasteland invariably described as "pristine" by those who have never had to visit the place.
It wasn't supposed to happen like this. The way most environmentalists viewed it, the energy blueprint for the United States was anything but cramped. Demand for electricity was supposed to flatten out about the time that consumers finally sated themselves with washers and dryers and other conveniences of the 20th century. So predicted the Union of Concerned Scientists in 1980. Even if they couldn't get enough, they could use the most energy-efficient appliances and, further, conserve their use of them rather like Mr. Barrett. Too little fuel to heat your house? Put on a sweater. Too little gasoline? Drive less.
The premise of the conservation argument rests on logic guaranteed to topple in a spring breeze. To tell the likes of Intel and Sun that conservation is a substitute for power, says Fred Smith of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, is rather like telling a starving man that while he might need a meal from time to time, more dieting is really the answer. But such arguments were good enough for Sacramento voters in 1989 when they voted 53 percent to 43 percent to close the Rancho Seco nuclear plant about 25 miles outside the city. And apparently it is still good enough for voters in California, where it takes 12 months, about $30 million and 17 assessments on everything from effects on wildlife to historical significance to get permission to build a power plant. Consequently, one hasn't been built there in a decade.
What's happened during that period, of course, is the emergence of an electricity-guzzling Internet-based industry. By one estimate, it amounts to as much as 13 percent of the overall demand for power in the United States. Electricity demand in Silicon Valley alone has shot up 33 percent since 1996, reports Forbes magazine. It takes energy to get around in cyberspace. It takes energy to run the tens of millions of personal computers that essentially didn't exist 10 years ago. It takes energy to run the routers, the servers and the factories that make them. The industry's appetite for electrons is only going to grow as consumers, unconvinced about the nobility of technological benightedness, try out wireless communications.
Critics argue that while technology has increased demand for power, the "net effect" of the Internet is actually to reduce demand. E-mail, for example, would reduce the number of trips persons make to the Post Office, the need for overnight delivery, the slaughter of trees to make paper and so on. It sounds fine in theory, but in practice it hasn't worked out that way. As energy consultant Mark Mills testified before Congress a year ago, consider "the long-promised energy savings from telecommuting. Certainly telecommuting uses less fuel than driving your car. But auto and air travel is up even with the rise of telecommuting. The reasons are complex, but even the co-inventor of the Internet himself has concluded: 'The Internet has the funny effect of increasing the amount of travel.' " [Vinton Cerf, senior vice president of Internet Architecture, MCI WorldCom].
Anyway the microchips fall, the Internet industry needs fuel. It can be nuclear, coal, gas, oil, anything reliable. California and the nation starve that industry at their own risk.
E-mail: Ksmith@washingtontimes.com

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