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Many people herald AI as the greatest thing since sliced bread or ice cream. Some say it will be a major factor in solving climate issues (quick nod to Jeremy Clarkson there…) But increasingly, concerns are rising over how much energy the technology needs – now and in the future. For example, The Washington Post recently wrote:

“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… Northern Virginia needs the equivalent of several large nuclear power plants to serve all the new data centers planned and under construction. Texas, where electricity shortages are already routine on hot summer days [and which boasts far more renewable energy than any other state and has for many years], faces the same dilemma.

A major factor behind the skyrocketing demand is the rapid innovation in artificial intelligence, which is driving the construction of large warehouses of computing infrastructure that require exponentially more power than traditional data centers. The nation’s 2,700 data centers sapped more than 4 percent of the country’s total electricity in 2022, according to the International Energy Agency. Its projections show that by 2026, they will consume 6 percent. Industry forecasts show the centers eating up a larger share of U.S. electricity in the years that follow, as demand from residential and smaller commercial facilities stays relatively flat thanks to steadily increasing efficiencies in appliances and heating and cooling systems.”

Observers may point to the growth of renewable energy to meet this demand. Fair enough – Bloomberg NEF estimates that 19.8 gigawatts of onshore wind power alone will come online in the US in 2030 – up from 7 gigawatts in 2023. Awesome, you say. But compare that number to this graph:

I do realize that the 19.8GW is only wind power and doesn’t include solar, etc. Even so, could data center energy needs alone take most – if not all – renewable energy growth in the near future? Where does that leave other companies and individuals expecting to reduce their Scope 2 emissions as a result of those same renewable energy projects? Will AI data centers lock up all new renewable energy production? Will we see double/triple/etc. counting of “green electron” distribution and consumption to satisfy others wanting green electricity? Or will fossil fuel electricity need to grow in order to meet gross consumption increases? Is there more to the story? This isn’t just a matter of offsetting emissions – this is about electricity availability and use. Companies will need to think about this as they look to Scope 2 reduction plans and contingencies – especially in light of upcoming regulatory disclosures required by California and SEC’s new rule.

I guess someone could just ask AI for help, even if doing so may be counter to a company’s ESG commitments.

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The Editor

Lawrence Heim has been practicing in the field of ESG management for almost 40 years. He began his career as a legal assistant in the Environmental Practice of Vinson & Elkins working for a partner who is nationally recognized and an adjunct professor of environmental law at the University of Texas Law School. He moved into technical environmental consulting with ENSR Consulting & Engineering at the height of environmental regulatory development, working across a range of disciplines. He was one… View Profile