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A guilt-free way to make the world wide web go round

FLYING IS SO DEMONISED these days - getting on an EasyJet plane to Nice probably still ranks as a slightly more acceptable pastime than drowning puppies, but not much. 

 

But as technology analyst company Gartner has reported, the total amount of C02 generated by the information and communications industries in today's developed world is similar to that generated by the airline industry. And it's growing faster - the energy consumed by the computing industry has doubled in the last five years and is predicted to double again in the next five. 

 

So, when was the last time you felt guilty when you used a computer to order a book from Amazon, or shared a YouTube sequence with a friend? 

 

Well, you should, because a really big user of the power consumed by computers are the data centres - the specially-built facilities located mostly in cities where racks and racks of high power computer servers throb away constantly to power the online banking, the online shopping, the email handlers, and the social networking sites that make the modern webby world go round. 

 

The computers that power all this concentrate enormous power into their small boards - called 'blades' - that slot into these racks. A fully populated rack can draw 20Kw of power - the equivalent of 10 domestic fan heaters. Not only is this power required to drive these servers, the heat generated by these 10 'heaters' needs to be cooled back down again - another huge power drain on the grid. And any data centre will have many hundreds of such racks. 

 

Data centres in the US currently use up the complete output of 15 baseload power plants, and another 10 will be required in the next five years to meet demand. 

 

This has led Andy Hopper, the distinguished Professor of Computer Technology and head of the Computing Laboratory at the University of Cambridge, to suggest that there is no reason why these centres should be located in cities. Hopper argues that they should be located in remote sites next to wind farms. 

 

The UK - and especially Scotland - happens to be an ideal location for renewable energy. There is indeed wind for the wind farms, but there are also unlimited supplies of waves and tides - particularly off the west and north coasts of Scotland. And waves and tides don't ever give up, unlike the wind, which does inconveniently stop blowing from time to time. 

 

We have known for some time that huge quantities of wave and tidal power could be generated in such places but until now a big problem has been that of delivering the electricity where it is needed in the big population centres down south. The backhaul of such power would not only be expensive and deface the environment with huge pylons, it would also lose up to 10 per cent of the energy along the way. 

 

Better surely to actually build data centres in Stornoway or Fort William and use the power locally. Connecting the centres to the internet should be far less of a problem - there are a couple of big fat undersea communication cables connecting Scandinavia to North America that pass down the west coast of Scotland. 

 

As for cooling such data centres how to put this politely? It should be a whole lot easier to keep a data centre cool in Stornoway than it is in Stockwell. 

 

And that, Alex, is my bid for your newly announced £10m Saltire Prize .• 

 

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