With Fuel Rationing On The Way, Can IT Help?

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Personal energy quotas could be a wake-up call… and an opportunity for IT companies to help with a global challenge, says Peter Judge

Here’s a shocking news report. By 2020, the UK may have fuel rationing.

It’s being reported that rationing will be needed “to meet the government’s carbon emissions quotas, but the news is based on a report commissioned by the MPs who are looking at the energy crisis, so it might be as much to do with the UK’s looming shortage of generating capacity.

Whatever the reasoning, the possibility is that all adults may get “Tradable Energy Quotas” which set a limit on the amount of energy people get to use. The idea has come from a report by the Lean Economy Connection think tank, commissioned by the committee of MPs who look into the energy crisis, the All Party Parliamentary Group on Peak Oil and Gas.

High-tech ration books?

The word “rationing” may conjure up images of wartime books and cards, but this – if it happens – will obviously be more high-tech, and tightly linked to the Smart Meter scheme which should be widely rolled out by then.

So in some ways, this is good news for IT. IBM is already supplying the back end to the UK’s smart meters; HP is also involved in the market. Other green services companies are waiting in the wings for big holistic green projects and are rubbing their hands at the opportunities this would offer to them.

But at the same time, we would hope they will be doing more than just taking the money. Someone, we hope, is considering whether this is practical, whether it can work, whether it will actually reduce carbon emissions, and whether the cut will be anything like enough.

Let’s treat this as a challenge

At the highest level, there seems to be a mix of optimism and trepidation. After huge expectations, 2009’s UN climate change conference in Copenhagen was judged a failure, but at the end of 2010, the much-quieter Cancun conference produced some positive results, according to Chris Huhne, the UK’s Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change.

We don’t have a set of binding international agreements to reduce carbon emissions, Huhne reported at a House of Commons reception last week hosted by the Aldersgate Group. But then, we don’t have the sort of ‘World Government’ which climate change deniers and conspiracy theorists believe is at the back of all talk of global warming.

So, with the legally-binding rules put to one side, the world is proceeding along a “parallel track”, Huhne said, where the growth in the low-carbon economy – the market for solar cells and other green tech – will drive any change.

Low carbon is an opportunity

So, at the moment, China is not prepared to sign any legally binding emissions reduction agreements – but it is a leader in the market for photo-Voltaic cells, so at some point it will realise it actually has an interest in a political move which would boost that market.

“China has an interest in a legally binding climate change agreement because it has an interest in the low-carbon future,” said Huhne.

In any case, the cost per Watt from solar cells is falling rapidly, while the cost of oil is rising. At some point – hopefully while the earth is still habitable – those two graphs will cross, and it will become more cost-effective to use solar electricity than fossil-generated power.

In response to all this, IT people have the tricky dual mission they have always had. Keep cutting your own energy use – by using better cooling and managing your desktops for instance.

But at the same time, make your services ready for new demands which will be generated by the move to the low-carbon economy.  Fuel rationing may seem extreme, but it could be just the start.

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