Monday, 21 January 2013

The Carbon (Bigfoot) Print

In 1990 I attended a conference on photovoltaic energy in Lisbon. I was managing a farming project that was 10 miles away from the Portuguese National grid and solar panels looked an enticing proposal to supply the energy needs for that farm.

I entered a room where an ongoing lecture was taking place. A scientist was presenting a slide show plus acetates on a Overhead Projector (remember those times?) explaining the virtues of solar energy and somehow in the middle of his lecture he made (and displayed) this amazing statement:

"Your solar panel costs may be recovered in less than 5 years!!!"

I had to raise my hand! I had my doubts, serious doubts. "Are you sure? 5 years?" I asked. "Yes!" he replied "As little as 5 years". "How can that be possible?" I insisted. And his reply stuck ingrained in my memory forever "If a solar panel costs $1,000 and after 5 years it gives you back $1,000 in energy then you have recovered your costs!". "But a solar panel is more than costs, it is high technology, it is pure materials and it is more than the energy it will give back!" I retorted, getting a bit annoyed. "No! That's it, if you recover the money that's what we are looking for." he finalised and resumed his lecture. A murmur of agreement went through the entire audience. On that day I realized that scientists' favourite unit measure is... the US dollar.

My gut feeling was that it had to be more than money. There was no way that a solar panel producing 60Wh would recoup its value after 5 years. Its energetic value on its assembly, raw materials, purity, technicians expertise, design, looking like a piece of jewellery (albeit mass produced) would have to be more than its lifetime production of 25 years, circa 3MWh. A solar panel like that should have an organizational energetic value (a fight against entropy) of at least 20MWh. It was "disentropic" on at least 17MWh. It's price was a gimmick, it was "cooked", an accountancy trick.

After the lecture I was joined by 3 exhibitors that wanted to discuss my point further. Lawrence (Larry) Slominski from United Solar Systems, Fulvio Fratarelli from Solarex and Jutta Warko from Sun Power GMBH. Larry is still doing solar business and so are Solarex and Sun Power. They were all in agreement with the lecturer. They were unable to grasp the, at the time inexistent, concept of carbon footprint. They wanted to sell me... solar panels.

This pricing tag permeates the entire reasoning (or stupidity) of today's world. Even the carbon footprint can be paid back... in cash, just to make you feel better. And that is wrong, very wrong... and distorted.

I live in the United Kingdom. I use Tesco supermarkets. One day you go to Tesco to buy ham. You approach the deli counter and see this big display, 100 metres wide, with 200 staff in their white uniforms, 200 ham slicing machines spinning, 200 hams all waiting for your order. You comment "This is crazy, why all this?" And their reply "We don't want anyone to wait, we want to give you prompt service, how many slices please?". You place your order, sliced and packed, and return home gobsmacked. "Tesco has lost the plot!" you think. "There's nothing like this in the world. What a waste." You are wrong though... it's all over it... it is called the Internet!

The Internet only works on demand; you press a button, you want an answer. The amount of equipment, energy and disentropy needed is staggering. Let me exemplify with a common object, the iPhone5. For this I will use two types of unit, money (because scientists love it) in UK pounds and energy in KWh. My last electricity annual statement showed that I used 4.3MWh at a cost of £621 (£144 per MWh)

An iPhone5 64GB costs £699. This is the price for it in the Apple Store, totally made and assembled in China, with labour costs at zero, shipping costs on China Shipping at zero, energy costs at zero. That is what the Republic of China does in order to cash in US dollars. The fact that you transfer the cloud of smoke to another country, plus the raw materials and technology reflects on its price. Would it be made in the USA, with USA labour, USA raw materials, packaging and the rest and its true price would be £2,000. But this is not the real price. Not yet. Its disentropic value is at least 25MWh or £3610.

This is not over yet. You will have to add to this maintenance costs, charging it, using the on demand service 24/7 for your single apparatus. Allow me to quantify this.

There are at least 30,000 3G mobile masts in the UK network to assist 30,000,000 Internet mobile users including smartphones, iPads, tablets, dongles, MiFi. Each mast needs at least 10KWh. You accrue the disentropy of the hardware at 3 times the value. Total... 120MWh or 40Wh per gadget. You say this is not much, just a light bulb, but this is ALWAYS ON all year round. In one year is 350KWh you burned even if you never used the service (remember the sliced ham?). That is equivalent to 10 full load white washings. Your iPhone5 "burns" 10 white washings each year to have full time access to its 3G network!!!!! even if it's off!

To have all the servers up and running (the ham slicers), the world uses the equivalent of 60 NUCLEAR POWER PLANTS (120GWh) so you can be "plugged in" all the time. However data centres need alternative power supplies in case the grid halts, so they all have generators, batteries and the rest plus that beautifully designed and top of the range server hardware. That adds to another 480GWh. There are around 2 billion users at any one time. They use 240Wh permanently or 2MWh each year. That is equivalent to 400 Christmas roast turkeys with the full trimmings. Your iPhone5 uses one roast turkey a day to have full time access to the Internet information, even if it's off!!

Charging yout phone... 100Wh every day. Another 40KWh per year. Total usage costs are 2MWh or £288. Total for your iPhone £4,000!!!

After one year you change your phone and it all starts again. To make it "green" it should last at least 15 years. Using "scientific" units for you to have access to the Internet, on your phone or at home or office (desktop, wifi, gaming consoles, etc)... the cost is £10,000 every year, and this is a conservative figure. That is equivalent to 45,000Km on a thirsty 4 wheel drive. Or 20,000Km on a Lamborghini Aventador. For every single one of you.

I end up with a little footnote. Larry Slominski gave me his business card in 1990.

I have kept it. It is still in a sleeve on my Filofax. I still have this information 23 years on and will still be for a long long time. Original cost $0.10, maintenance costs 0. Cost of a .vcf card on the cloud for 23 years... $50. Is it time to resurrect my Filofax and pen and paper?


  1. You've pushed my curiosity and stirred a couple questions. What about the trees? Is Solar the better choice? And what about all the radiowaves from the millions of Iphones and in my case Android......aren't those harmful?

  2. The trees are not a problem at all. Most paper now comes from managed forests. Read my previous blog entry on this "The Cloud (cough, cough)". If you stop using paper forests will disappear. There is no better choice as such. The best approach is using the least energy possible for each action. The wise man (me) says "Don't buy into the Cloud propaganda". If you look at your smart phone you'll see that 90% of its features will remain forever unused, and the ones you use could be better done by talking and seeing people directly, going to the library, going to the shops". Homo Sapiens has not enough evolution or necessity to live its life "on demand" or instantly. It is called... thinking. Thinking takes time.

  3. What about wasted food in restaurants?
    What about the energy left in my poo?
    When you got to bed, do you feel unhappy that most machines dissipate heat?
    What about all the love that goes unanswered?
    What about war?
    One can argue anything, even to one self...

    I am all for going back to paper... Specially marijuana paper like prior days...
    And I think the day digital reaches perfection is the day we are back to analogue.

    But most of your so called "Homo Sapiens" population doesn't even understand what you are talking about, or cares, even if you pulled a chair and sat in front of them. Literally... they don't care. So should we start a new religion?

    If life is a rollercoaster, would you rather enjoy the ride, or talk about physics?
    Why are the poor people of Brazil amongst the happiest in the planet?

    Beauty is in the eye of the beholder...
    And you are never more than your bias... by the very definition of individuality...
    Appreciate the limitations also, whether in you, others, or the world...
    That's the beauty of life...

    You post was a nice exercise in Math, but perhaps lets solve the problems of war, hunger and violence before we talk about wasted electricity or ROI...

  4. Thank you for your thoughts. I am happy to know that it gave a good reflection on the priorities of life.
    But if "life is a rollercoaster" I would always, always talk about physics without a shadow of a doubt.

  5. Very interesting thoughts here!

  6. If the manufacturing costs of the iphone are almost none, why would the phone cost 700$? Less profit would be made if the manufaturing were in a western country, but it would absolutely not rise the price of the phone to 2000$. You would just give the chinese a payrise and cut pay of CEO's.

    Going from discussing solar power to why the internet is a waste of energy? Dude you need to include more facts to back up your arguments and discuss one topic at a time. Now it seemed like you where just listing all your thoughts on what's wrong on todays society. I can't say that I am at all convinced of why solar power vouldn't be a viable option. And you didn't even discuss what would be a better option.