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Responsible power use

Cisco’s attitude led to energy crisis.

A couple times a year, I have my brother Steve (ComputerUser’s art director) over at my bar for a blues fest–an evening of loud music and cold beverages that ends just before dawn. That was the plan for Saturday night, but in the middle of a Lester Young sax solo, we had a power outage that lasted more than an hour. What is normally a raucous evening was suddenly silent, except for the infernal beeping sound coming from my UPS system in the next room and some acoustical blues licks by CU Senior Managing Editor Dan Heilman.

We don’t have power outages often, but when we do, it is a bitter reminder of how much we take power for granted–a reminder that Californians have faced all too often lately. One wonders why it takes a crisis to get people to see a problem that has been building since long before Silicon Valley was a household phrase. Whatever the psychological basis for our complacency, that false sense of security has only made the problem worse–power consumption has risen exponentially while power supply has only risen slightly, not just in California but in information hubs around the country.

What makes Silicon Valley different from, say, Boston is the odd combination of unabashed capitalism and tight environmental regulations. It’s no secret that California has the tightest environmental regulations in the country. This is a good thing, except for one problem: it means it is virtually impossible for California to generate enough electricity to support its huge commercial and population base. The only type of power plant that can be built in California (besides renewable sources) runs on natural gas. And even these take several years to get approved and built.

What we have is a disconnect from reality. Reality says California should generate as much power as it uses. But its not-in-my-backyard attitude guarantees it will never come close to this. Not in our lifetime, anyway. Silicon Valley generates about 2 percent of the power it uses. Even when a gas-fired plant that would double that percentage was approved, its own residents oppose it. Cisco systems, which consumes more power by itself than the whole Valley generates, is lobbying to nix approval for a new gas-fired plant because it doesn’t want its new corporate digs to look out at a power plant.

Granted, California’s power crisis is more complicated than I’ve made it seem. But a big part of the problem is complacency. In this respect, rolling blackouts are a good thing, causing Californians to deal with the problem rather than shirking it. Once the power came on in our blues fest, our renewed appreciation for the precious resource made us that much more thankful to be able to crank the tunes. Hopefully our attitudes will be contagious.

James Mathewson is editorial director of and ComputerUser magazine.

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