Wednesday, February 17, 2010

"The Plan" by Black (2008)

Author Edwin Black's niche is to, assisted by dozens of volunteers, sieve through libraries and archives and write extremely well-researched books. He usually spends a couple of years doing research before he cranks out a new book, but he made an exception for the sleek, no more than 130 pages long "The Plan: How to rescue society when the oil stops - or the day before" (2008).

A little more than a year ago, I wrote [in Swedish - not yet translated to English] about his first oil-related book, "Internal Combustion: How corporations and governments addicted the world to oil and derailed the alternatives" (2006). Here I review the 2008 "sequel".

The book's starting point is America's (in)ability to cope with an acute fuel crisis. It does thus not start off with the “ordinary” peak oil scenario based on a relatively slow decline in global production but rather takes as its starting point a rather sudden change for the worse. "Oil will ’peak‘ [...] the very hour a person cannot pump a gallon of gas or buy bread on an unstocked supermarket shelf because someone thousands of miles away has cut the lines of supply".

Although the book does not primarily deal with what exactly caused this sudden decline, it starts by giving an overview of how dependent and vulnerable the U.S. is if the daily supply of oil from neighboring and more distant countries would suddenly decline (the three largest exporters of oil to the United States are Canada, Mexico and Saudi Arabia).

When it comes to Saudi Arabia, Black points out that the oil from the world's largest oil field, Ghawar, must pass through three vulnerable choke points on its journey to the U.S. and other export markets. At Abqaiq, two thirds of Saudi Arabia's oil is processed and prepared for shipment by tankers before the oil is sent to the port of Ras Tanura. Subsequently, all oil tankers have to travel through the 50 kilometers narrow Strait of Hormuz in order to reach the oceans. Of all the oil in the world that is transported by sea, approximately 40% has to traverse the narrow Strait of Hormuz, and Black calls these three choke points "the solar plexus of the planet." If any of these three sites were to be knocked out, the world would immediately go down for count.

In 2006, an attack by al-Qaeda against Abqaiq was averted, and Iran has threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz if the country is invaded by the United States or Israel. For Black, the question is not if, but when a collapse of the oil supply (of some kind) takes place.

What then constitutes an acute oil crisis? At a 5% decrease in the oil volumes that are accessible to the Western world, the U.S. President may give permission to release oil from the strategic oil reserve. A decrease of 7% would trigger an "international crisis under emergency treaties", and a decrease of 10% would be a disaster which, according to an energy expert, would be "so off the chart that we cannot even model it". That does not sound very reassuring, does it? “The Plan” is Black's answer to what the U.S. needs to do to cope with a prolonged (more than 30 days long) reduction in the availability of oil by 5-10%.

After stating that some (few) Western countries have plans for how to handle such a situation, Black makes a point of the fact that the United States Does Not Have a Plan - beyond letting the (marvelous, magical, miraculous) market handle such a never-occurred-before situation. To Black, his own book is right now the plan - the manual - for how to face such a crisis. In fact, the book is partly written as a manual, and therefore in places tends to become a rather dry read. The book's longest chapter is structured in the form of 18 regulations, and each regulation is followed by a discussion of the necessity and consequences of the regulation in question. Some of the regulations are quite formally written - ready to be immediately implemented in a real crisis:

"Regulation 15: Marine Restrictions on yachts, speed boats and non-commercial pleasure craft. Within one week of an oil supply emergency declaration, all non-commercial marine craft, including but not limited to private yachts, speed boats, recreational vessels and personal watercraft, shall be unable to refuel in the Continental United States, except in an emergency, until retrofitted to accept alternative fuel or propulsion system."

These 18 regulations govern everything from prices and rules about the sales of refined petroleum products, to how to deal with the strategic oil reserve, carpooling, speed limits (55 mph or 90 km/h, except "in the countryside"), idling, public transportation (very cheap or free), trailers, the black market and so on. Petrol price are set to a predetermined level that does not price the poor out of the market - since everyone must have the chance to get to a hospital or to work (for example as a cleaner in a hospital). The price of petrol will thus remain "reasonable", but the amount you will be able to buy will be rationed.

One of the regulations states that a car’s fuel economy will determine how often the car may be driven; if a car cannot be driven at least 15 miles per gallon (mpg) - 6.3 kilometers per liter of gasoline – it may not be driven at all before it has been rebuilt/retrofitted. Cars with a fuel economy of up to 25 mpg may be driven one day per week, up to 35 mpg may be driven every second day, and for cars that have a fuel economy of 36 mpg or better (15 kilometers/liter) there will be no restrictions.

All these regulations are short term measures which are to be implemented during the very first week. Eventually, all cars and other vehicles must be rebuilt so that they may be driven on fuel other than petrol. Regarding alternative fuels Black is agnostic – he thinks that people should use whatever works best in different parts of the United States and lists the available options: hydrogen, ammonia, alcohol (e.g. ethanol), biofuels, compressed natural gas (CNG) or electricity. Unfortunately, in the U.S. today it is very difficult to get around the rules and "upgrade" a car to drink other beverages than gasoline, so the starting position for the future growth industry if retrofitting cars is poor. The rigid rules of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have prevented the commercialization of alternatives to gasoline, thus nurturing a small (illegal) underground culture where people upgrade their cars at their own risk and using equipment from abroad.

Who is to blame for the vulnerable situation that the United States and the rest of the Western world now finds itself in? Black identifies four main culprits:

- OPEC bears some responsibility but gets off lightly; it was the West who invaded their territories after the First World War and created vassal states which supplied cheap oil, and, it was also the West who voluntarily made themselves dependent on OPEC’s oil.

- The second scapegoat is the public and their (spineless) representatives among politicians.

- Oil companies (Big Oil) are according to Black more blameworthy than OPEC and the general public. They have enriched themselves while they have made society more dependent on oil, and have at the same time delayed and discouraged all possible alternatives. In the second quarter of 2008, America's largest oil company, Exxon Mobil, made an astronomical profit of 11 680 million dollars. If you remove all oil companies from the list of America's 500 largest companies (Fortune 500), Exxon earned more money than all the other companies combined during that period.

- Black though reserves the greatest blame for Detroit and the American car companies. Already in the childhood of the automobile, the nascent automotive industry sabotaged and manipulated the alternative, better solution - the electric car. From a long history of "subversive activities", Detroit becomes the main scapegoat for its recent 35 year long campaign of obstruction and foolish decisions. The automotive industry has repeatedly made the wrong turn ever since the first oil crisis in 1973 made it clear that the U.S. was vulnerable due to its dependence on oil. Despite this obvious vulnerability, Detroit has since then built, sold and exported many millions of gas-thirsty cars which have exacerbated and already-bad situation. Actor Alex Baldwin (no kidding) reflects on Detroit's burden of debt:

"The heads of [US automakers] did not spend the last thirty years lying in bed each night, sleepless. They did not turn their spouses in the wee hours and say, "How do I serve the automotive needs of the American public and better protect their health and safety AND help them conserve energy?" [...] Instead, they spent billions of dollars attempting to bribe the Congress to avoid putting in seat belts and air bags, installing catalytic converters and reaching more ambitious fuel efficiency standards. For the most part, they succeeded."

Based on all of this, Black concludes in his 18th and final regulation that the oil and automotive industries must absolutely not be involved in any discussions about how to solve the oil crisis:

”Iowa corn producers, Detroit carmakers, oil companies and other forces of petroaddiction must be kept out of the fix. They will destroy it, dilute it, distract it, dismantle it, or divert it. […] if lobbyists are not excluded from the rescue plan, then any plan will be doomed.”

Right now, two out of the three major American car companies are down for count (General Motors and Chrysler). In a way, they have thus been "punished" for their sins. But from another perspective, they have instead been absolved and have left their sins behind them, because it is no longer possible to claim compensation from them - and especially so if the compensation should be proportional to the harm these companies more or less deliberately have inflicted upon society.

In some ways Black may come acress as extreme. His answer would be that a major threat must be countered with measures that (to some) may seem extreme (today). In other ways, however, he is moderate in his approaches and assumptions. Something I find to be a weakness is that he never criticizes or even reflects upon fundamental assumptions about the American way of life based on cars and long distance transportation, despite the fact that he clearly makes an effort to think about the ‘real’ price of gasoline:

”The true price of every gallon of gasoline, adding in expenditures for tax subsidies and government programs, harm to our health as a result of toxic emissions, environmental damage and military operations to protect the supply, is almost impossible to reliably calculate […] But some of the most quoted and informed studies conclude the true cost of oil to be more than $15 per gallon”

The claim that oil and gasoline actually cost much more than what you pay at the petrol pump is in line with the contents of a report ("Powering America's Defense: Energy and the Risks to National Security") from the military think tank CNA. The report, written by CNA's military advisory board (consisting of 12 retired generals and admirals) states that the real cost of providing U.S. military with fuel is between 15 and hundreds of dollars per gallon (!), depending on the need for security and logistics to ensure that the fuel is in the right place at the right time. These prices for example include costs to protect maritime transports and to station troops and maintain numerous military bases abroad.

A concrete example is a specific study from Iraq, where only 10% of the fuel for ground troops is used by tanks and other vehicles that "deliver lethal force". The remaining 90% is used by armored vehicles, trucks and helicopters that deliver and protect fuel and troops. Another example is the estimated cost of $42/gallon for aerial refueling of fighters. Of course, these calculations do not include "softer" aspects such as pollution of the environment or poor health among military and other personnel mentioned by Black above.

When the gasoline price skyrocketed in 2008 and many Americans were brought to their knees, the price of a gallon of gasoline in the U.S. reached unheard-of levels of $4 per gallon. This price is not at all high from a Swedish perspective where we have to go back to the end of the 1980's to find such "bargain" prices! But, a $4 per gallon price tag on gas in the U.S. is two to three times as much as the price during the period 1990-2004. Today, in the midst of a raging recession, the price of gasoline is slightly higher than $2.50 per gallon, and already that price is too much for many (un- or underemployed) Americans.

Although The Plan is a crisis plan, Black would prefer for it to be implemented already before a major crisis arises. A nice thought, but don't hold your breath waiting for it to happen – the ideas are far too rational to be taken seriously.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The energy consumption of avatars

Are virtual worlds environmentally sustainable? Based on such thoughts, Nicholas Carr wrote a blog post some three years ago, in December 2006, about how much power we use when we use virtual worlds. It provoked strong reactions, not the least because the title of his text was "Avatars consume as much electricity as Brazilians". Still three years laters, texts (such as this one :-) about avatars, eletricity, climate impact and Brazilians show up like a jack-in-the-box. I will here go through Nick’s line of reasoning and the criticism he encountered before I go on and analyze the ways in which we can think about these issues. I recently wrote about the energy footprint of Google searches and will eventually come around and write about the power consumption and carbon footprint of PCs and data centers. Computer servers consume one percent or so of the world electricity supply. That might not sound like much, but their power consumption grows by 15-20% per year (which is equivalent to a fivefold increase in 10 years). 

At the time when Nick Carr posted is question, the virtual world Second Life was visited by somewhere between 10 000 and 15 000 avatars at any one time. To run it all, no less than 4000 servers were required. In the absence of actual figures as to the electricity consumption of the company that runs Second Life - Linden Lab - Nick made a few assumptions: 
- Each server in Linden Lab’s data center burns through 200 watts and then uses an additional 50 watts to cool the data center. 
- Every home computer that is connected to Second Life uses 120 watts. 

This would mean that the 4 000 servers in question use (4 000 servers) x (250 watts) x (24 hours) = 24 000 kWh (kilowatt hours) each day. Additionally, the power consumption of all home computers is (12 500 PCs on average) x (120 watts) x (24 hours) = 36 000 kWh each day. Altogether these computers and servers would thus use 60 000 kWh per day and if we divide this electricity consumption between 12 500 avatars, each of them would use 4.8 kWh for each 24 hours of existence in the game/virtual world Second Life. 

How much is 4.8 kWh per day then? Well, it adds up over the days and months and becomes 1750 kWh per year which is comparable with the electricity consumption per capita in Brazil (according to the 2003 data that Nick had access to).

In the ensuing discussion, Nick was quickly corrected by a person who was employed by Linden Lab. Previously, each computer server ran a "region" in the game but now, a server may run up to four "regions". The correct figures for Linden Lab’s electricity consumption is therefore (1 000 servers) x (225 watts) x (24 hours) = 5 400 kWh per day - that is, less than 1/4 of the original estimate (which, however was based on a fuzzy statement by the CEO of Linden Lab). The new figures gives that an avatar consumes approximately 1 200 kWh per year instead of 1 750 kWh, and that Linden Lab’s servers account for a relatively small part of that power consumption while the home computers account for more than 85% of the total power consumption. 

Almost six months later (May 2007), Nick is once more corrected when a new, better-informed (?) employee from Linden Lab presents new figures. To begin with, the average number of avatars are now 30 000, and the number of servers has risen to 2 000. In addition, both servers and home PCs draw significantly more power when the run Second Life. Now, Linden Lab’s power consumption is instead (2 000 servers) x (500 watts) x (24 hours) = 24 000 kWh. The rule of thumb is that for every watt that a server uses, the same amount of energy is needed to cool the data center where the server is housed. Power consumption at home is estimated to be (30 000 computers) x (250 watts) x (24 hours) = 180 000 kWh per day. In total, these 204 000 kWh divided into 30 000 avatars becomes 6.8 kWh per day. That is equivalent to 2 500 kWh per year and the home computer accounts for almost 90% of the total power consumption. Latvia, Romania and Argentina are a few countries that had a power consumption in the neighborhood of 2 500 kWh per capita in 2005. In Sweden, we used more than 15 000 kWh per person in 2005.

Taking all of this conflict (and constantly changing) information into account, what conculsions can be drawn so far?

- The Internet changes constantly. To get current figures is like chasing a moving target. What are the figures for Second Life right now? According to the latest figures (Jan 2010) there are currently 18 million accounts (avatars) registered in Second Life, but only 750 000 of them (5%) log in to Second Life each month. These avatars spent a total of 118 million hours (!) in Second Life during the third quarter of 2009.

- Information about the number of servers and their power consumption varies widely and therefore seems not be that reliable (see above). Power consumption can obviously not have been one of the heavier costs when running virtual worlds - or they would have kept better track of the figures. The same has probably been true also for other companies that rely on data centers such as Google, Flickr, Blizzard etc., but things might be changing now as the energy prices have been marching upwards during the last couple of years.

- A computer at work uses 120-150 watts, but a computer that runs Second Life (or World of Warcraft or any other computer games) can use up to twice as much power as these applications make use of your computer's capabilities to the max. Data center use a lot of power, but you home computer that utilizes these services draw a lot more and get less work (computer cycles) done per unit of energy used.

- It is difficult to determine the usefulness (or damage) of using virtual worlds. On the one hand, you use a lot less energy (and generate considerably less pollution) if you cancel a trip and instead meet in a virtual world. But a computer uses a lot of electricity - if the option is an electricity-free activity (take a walk, talk to a neighbor, help your children do their homework). 

- Ideas are hard to kill. Although Nick’s figures were refuted and modified immediately, the "meme" about Second Life and the electricity consumption of Brazilians remains alive and pops up now and then to the chagrin of some.

The main objections raised against Nick’s argument above was that no real person is connected to Second Life 24 hours a day and that Second Life actually had 700 000 "active user" (whatever that means) at the time. So the power consumption of each person who used Second Life would have been just a 50th of Nick’s original calculation. Furthermore, any computer that is used for 24 hours a day 365 days per year uses more energy than the average Brazilians whatever that computer is used for (playing Second Life or doing something entirely different). 

Both ways of looking at this problem is correct, but these different perspectives choses to focus on slightly different things. Any individual physical person who plays Second Life did that for less than an hour a day on average and thus uses a moderate amount of energy. But each avatar in Second Life has the same (or higher) power consumption (per hour, per day or per year) as many people on earth have. 

I think Nicholas perspective is interesting, not the least because some information technology pundits sometimes tend to completely ignore that computers are physical objects that have required resources (raw materials, energy) for their manufacture, that consume electricity throughout their lifetime, and that one day will be scrapped/recycled. Computers obviously have an ecological footprint and the size of that footprint should naturally be explored further. This is a topic I will come back to later.