(Note: I wrote this article in August 2019 and published it our Tau Institute site. I was inspired by Bruce Taylor, who outlined for me the dimensions of the Digital Infrastructure that is increasingly essential to the global economy. We took this thought beyond compute, storage, and networking to the electricity that powers it.
With the interest by the Biden Administration in Digital Infrastructure, this article has become quite relevant.)
Yes, electricity is indeed Digital Infrastructure in today's world. The electricity itself is the same as it's ever been. But the way it's distributed, measured, and consumed is increasingly a series of digital processes. There is even a nascent method of sending a combination of electricity and information as “digital electricity” over long distances without the traditional concerns about power loss.
All of the digital monitoring, analysis, and transmission is for the good, as it promotes efficiency and creates a foundation for the sustainable electricity grids the world's economies are going to need if they are going to prosper.
Even though anthropogenic climate change is staring us, up close, in the face, the reality is that the world as a whole cannot advance socioeconomically without the development of copious new power sources.
I've created a spreadsheet of scenarios that factors in anticipated data growth and the consequent need for datacenters, new efficiencies in those datacenters, population growth by region, and an optimistic plan to facilitate the steadily growing consumption of electricity by developing nations.
My benchmark scenario prescribes a steady reduction in electricity use by the developed world, an increase in provision by China to current developed-world standards, and an increase in India and the rest of the developing world to 50% of this standard. (Much of the developing world currently gets by on 0.5% to 5% of this standard.)
I've extended the prescription out to the year 2050 – only 30 years from now. It shows the world's steady-state electricity demand rising from today's 2.8 terawatts to 6.2 terawatts – annual growth rates rise steadily from 1% today to 4% by 2050.
In today's dollars, building the facilities to provide the newly needed electricity would run at about $250 billion annually – this is only 0.3% of the world's GDP.
I don't account for replacing much of the current grid, something that will happen. I don't include those pesky costs for planning, real estate, permitting, and all the other expense that goes in with developing terawatts of electricity generation I don't include the investment costs in developing the physical and societal infrastructure that will demand all this new power I ignore thousands of years of human history that show how disagreements large and small, accompanied by enormous amounts of violence, impede socioeconomic progress.
Nevertheless, electricity grids will steadily improve throughout the developing world, and the developed world will likely maintain theirs in more-or-less the present state.
Can It Be Done?
There is a large, looming existential question as to how well we can do this without continued aggravation to the Earth's environment.
I've also seen little consensus, at least in the United States, that the world's developing nations are worth developing to reasonable levels.
A relatively small percentage of the US population, and an even smaller percentage of its politicians, have lived in the conditions that 75% of the world lives in, so have no understanding of the gap between what people in the developed world take for granted versus what people in the developing world don't have.
But hey, I have a working model, and am already consulting with others to tweak it, refine it, improve it, create multiple viable scenarios, and get it into serious conversations with serious people who can effect change. Please contact me if you're interested!