Is The Grid On The Skids?

AI Data Centers Relocate, Increasing Strain on Power Grid

Great. AI is not only stealing, regurgitating, and degrading the original creative work of actual human beings, it’s wreaking havoc with the nation’s energy resources. This is putting an enormous strain on the electric grid that delivers our energy.

Evan Helper succinctly describes the problem in a recent Washington Post article: “Vast swaths of the United States are at risk of running short of power as electricity-hungry data centers and clean-technology factories proliferate around the country, leaving utilities and regulators grasping for credible plans to expand the nation’s creaking power grid.”

Fast Company’s Chris Morris highlights two potential negative effects of this unprecedented demand for power. The bill for upgrading the grid may be fobbed off on residential users and not the electricity-gobbling data centers.

The second effect is environmental. Utility companies, Morris writes, “are lobbying to delay the shutdown of fossil fuel meet the surge in demand.”

The problem is exacerbated by a shift in where AI data centers are located. “In the past,” Helper writes, “companies tried to site their data centers in areas with major internet infrastructure, a large pool of tech talent, and attractive government incentives. But these locations aregetting tapped out.” Low-profile cities in Ohio, Iowa, and Indiana – to name only a few – are or will soon be home to huge new AI “factories.” Traditionally, power supplies in these locales are often limited, placing a further burden on an old and overworked grid.

AI is a drain on energy and water | UBS

As the BBC reports, it’s not just an American issue. The UK is a case in point. “There is currently a moratorium preventing the construction of new data centres in Dublin. Nearly a fifth of Ireland’s electricity is used up by data centres, and this figure is expected to grow significantly in the next few years... data centre electricity demand in the UK will rise six-fold in just 10 years, fueled largely by the rise of AI.”

June Kim of the MIT Technology Reviewoffers a far more positive view of AI as the perfect tool to protect and enhance the grid. “AI’s ability to learn from large amounts of data and respond to complex scenarios makes it particularly well-suited to the task of keeping the grid stable, and a growing number of software companies are bringing AI products to the notoriously slow-moving energy industry.” Kim envisions a world in which AI runs a fully-automated grid, but recognizes that issues of data security, reliability, and social/economic biases render such a scenario impossible for now.

Time and again, new technology has been presented as the scientific equivalent of penicillin, a one-size-fits-all panacea and boon to suffering humanity. Remember how the Internet was going to make a heaven out of earth? Look how that turned out. And wasn’t the Atom Bomb going to put an end to warfare? You go, technocrats!

It’s a truism to say that technology is not, in itself, bad or dangerous or evil. It’s the uses to which it’s put that determines the ethical or unethical nature of a given development. But as Calvin Coolidge once said, “The chief business of the American people is business,” and business is notoriously blind to anything but profit. Remaining hopeful that AI in all its manifestations and consequences will benefit the global family is not an easy task. One fears we are whistling in the dark.

And, when an over-burdened grid finally collapses, we will be.