I am writing this post on a state of the art machine able to transmit information across the world at the click of a button. Twenty years ago this technology was only available to people in research facilities, the military and universities – now it is ubiquitous. I can speak to family members in Australia on a video call, with almost no delay

My question today is related to the future of communications. Will our information superhighway survive without oil? Even with a built up supply of electricity in the form of wind and solar power, can the necessary infrastrcuture be constructed and maintained without oil?

Today I watched a contractor installing a series of Telus conduits to augment a ski resort area. Several things struck me as interesting.

  1. The machinery required to quickly and effectivly excavate the ditch is all powered by diesel. This could be done by hand if necessary, but would require a large team of labourers.
  2. The pipes used for telecommunication conduit are made from PVC which is made from oil based products.
  3. The concrete vaults used to organize the cables are extremely large and heavy. These structures have a lot of embodied energy, from the production of the concrete through to the transportation to site.

This was a relatively minor section of work, yet almost every part of the execution of the works is predecated on, or at least greatly assisted by oil, cheap oil and lots of it. Can we rely on the telecommunications infrastructure to be maintained as the supp0ly of oil dwindles? What can we do to offset the risks?

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Published by Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas P.Eng. ENV SP, is the author of UrbanWorkbench.com and Director of Engineering at the City of Revelstoke in the Interior of British Columbia, Canada.

4 replies on “Telecommunications”

  1. Hey Mike,

    In addition to the installation costs, I have seen numbers suggesting that what Kevin Kelly calls the One Machine (all the computers in the world, servers, etc.) uses about 5% of global electricity and about 10% of energy consumed in the US. That is a staggering number. Here is a link.

    I don’t see how we would choose the internet over warm homes, or incubators, or lights in the hospital or maybe even charging electric cars.

  2. Hey Mike — Thanks for this, been wondering when the lid would rip off our illusions about the benefits of recycling. Without regional re-manufacturing centres, recycling our little household wastes makes very little sense. But people believe. Meanwhile, construction waste—that comes from irresponsible design and build practices, I contend—chokes our landfills.
    I reblogged a portion of your post! Very excited about that!
    Speaking of computers, I do see how we would choose the Internet over warm homes. We are doing right now with every stick-frame home we build that leaks warmth, has no thermal mass and yet is wired to the teeth for all the bells and whistles of the digital entertainment age.
    Bloody depressing, but true.

    Trish Barness last blog post..Sustainable Designs for Life

  3. @EJ – I’d imagine that even the maintenance is going to be difficult to justify in some areas.

    @ruben – I had an interesting discussion yesterday about the impacts of all of us converting to electric powered heating systems, even “greener” options like geothermal typically still need electricity. As we live in an ever more connected world, it seems plausible that manufacturers will be required to improve the ability for computers and other electronic devices to turn off charging or all power when not in use. In Australia – every power outlet has a switch on it – now doesn’t that make sense?

    @Trish – Thanks for linking to the post! You are right with the choices we make. While oil and natural gas are cheap, we will choose to heat our houses rather than make them as efficient as possible. For many houses – aside from the really low hanging fruit of sealing leaks etc, without an intensive make-over they are almost as efficient as they can be.

    No one commented on the image? I thought it was awesome 🙁

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