Kate's Comment

Thoughts on British ICT, energy & environment, cloud computing and security from Memset's MD

Eco-friendliness: Plant trees or build nukes?

We recently became the first UK Web host to be Carbon Neutral accredited, but does it actually make a real difference? In fact, are we going about all this wholesome planet-saving the right way at all? As an aside, our arch-rivals over at RackSpace claimed they were the first UK Web host to be carbon neutral on the 10th October, but I have a certificate stuck to the wall above my desk that says otherwise.

Admittedly, we didn’t shout about it until late October since our PR machine is considerably less “fanatical” than RackSpace’s, but enough of the sniping. 😉

Is this “carbon neutral” craze just a PR thing, or is there merit in it? Well, for most companies it is mainly just about offsetting their effective carbon usage. In our case we are funding a project called Plan Vivo to plant trees in Uganda, so for every tonne of carbon (in the form of CO2) we “produce” by using electricity, we pay something like £10 and wash our consciences clear in the knowledge that some trees are going to hoover it up again and we are not contributing to the greenhouse effect. All well and good, but to be honest it is treating the symptom and not the cause.

Our real focus is not offsetting, but rather a commitment to energy efficiency, and that primarily comes from our UK-leading development of virtual dedicated server technology. Despite the conceptual proof that computations can be done with zero power (one of Richard Feynman’s if memory serves), modern computers are hungry beasties. Even the new Sun Fire X2100 boxes, much vaunted for their eco-friendlieness, use around 80 watts when idling, so 100 watts when you factor in the cooling requirements. While many online apps need they own dedicated machine, they do not need a whole physical server and could just as well be on one of our Miniserver™ virtual machines burning just 10 watts. The majority of servers idle most the time, so if server virtualisation was widely adopted the potential power saving could be enormous – maybe hundreds of megawatts.

Sadly though, when you take a step back even things like that start to pale into insignificance. I read recently that even if we shut down all power generation in the UK, China’s current rate of building power stations would have filled the gap within 3 years. In fact, almost all popular greenhouse-gas fighting measures are at best rather feeble.

Personally I think we are taking utterly the wrong approach, again treating the symptoms and not finding a cure. What we should be doing is stopping burning fossil fuels and start taking nuclear power seriously again; modern day fission reactors are very safe and very efficient, and we should stop acting like frightened children every time someone dares say the “N” word. If having to cordon-off a few square miles of some scrub-land to dump the fission-waste is still too much for you to stomach, then fine – lets really stop messing about and start putting some serious money into the thing that will probably by the ultimate savior of our environment: Nuclear fusion.

The Joint European Torus (JET, see left) has already managed to sustain a reaction, proving at least part of the theory of a Tokamak reactor, and the new ITER (planned to be operational in in 2015) should be able to sustain a continuous 500 Megawatt output. We really do seem to have fusion almost within our grasp, so why are we faffing about building ugly, inefficient wind turbines and planting trees to replace the million-year-old dead sea-critters we are burning when focusing on technology can give us a source of almost unlimited, clean power, perhaps within three decades?