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Coal Plants Staying Online Because AI Needs So Much Power

Old King Coal

The booming AI industry is putting a massive strain on the US's aging electricity grid as energy companies struggle to power the massive data centers that the technology requires, Bloomberg reports.

In fact, the situation is already dire enough that coal plants once set for retirement are being kept online as a stopgap measure with more set to follow, highlighting AI's worrying environmental footprint that can sometimes go overlooked.

"We do need way more energy in the world than we thought we needed before," Sam Altman, CEO of ChatGPT-creator OpenAI, said at the World Economic Forum last week, as quoted by Bloomberg. "We still don't appreciate the energy needs of this technology."

Centers Cannot Hold

AI data centers are different from traditional ones, which are already formidable energy hogs, because they're stacked with specialized graphics processing units that perform more demanding tasks than typical computer chips.

Meta, formerly Facebook, itself heavily invested in AI, is building one such data center in Kansas City. Perhaps not coincidentally, the energy company that services the area, Evergy, announced in June that it was delaying the retirement of a coal plant by five years to 2028, according to Bloomberg.

Elsewhere, in an area of Northern Virginia aptly known as "data center alley," local provider Dominion Energy was forced to temporarily pause new data center connections in 2022. It reportedly warned the data center company Digital Realty of a possible "pinch point" that could prevent new projects until 2026. A Dominion representative, however, told Bloomberg that this was inaccurate and that the pause only lasted a few months.

Still, what is a matter of record is that Dominion is also considering keeping a coal plant online along with several natural gas ones to service the area, Bloomberg noted — despite having a massive wind farm in the works.

Gridlocked

Nationwide, the AI industry's energy demand seems even more fearsome. According to an analysis from Boston Consulting Group cited by Bloomberg, the electricity consumption at US data centers alone is expected to triple from 2022 levels by the end of the decade.

In the analysis's summary, that's equal to the electricity used by about a third of the total homes in the US, and about 7.5 percent of the entire country's projected energy demand.

Although renewables could step in to ease the burden, some experts say that the energy grid remains a frustrating bottleneck because there aren't enough transmission lines to connect wind and solar farms.

"The worst-case scenario is utilities don't adapt and keep old fossil-fuel capacity online and they don't evolve past that," Ari Peskoe, director of the Electricity Law Initiative at Harvard Law School, told Bloomberg.

If those energy issues aren't ironed out, the AI industry's own seemingly waning hype could be one form of relief. The technology is undeniably power hungry, but its prevalence could be overstated.

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