Who's Draining the Power Supply?

Everything that moves on the Internet travels through a room full of computers in an engine room that never stops.

"Electronic equipment doesn't operate on air," explains Jeff Monroe of Los Angeles Metro Media Fiber and Networks. "You have to have power."

These kinds of facilities are known as server farms and their power needs are stretching the limits of America's power system. "It's a tremendous impact," says Bob Royer of Seattle City Light.

In Seattle, server farms will soon use 50 percent of the power it takes to run the entire city. In New York, a single, one-story server farm will use more than twice the power it takes to run the entire World Trade Center, with its twin 100-story towers and underground shopping mall.

And in 10 years, the technology industry alone may be using 30 percent of the country's electricity.

Across the country, utilities have had to spend millions of dollars to build new transmission facilities to keep up.

"This is completely unique and very much has taken the industry by surprise," says Royer.

"You don't need to pin the blame on the high-tech industry," says Karl Stahlkopf of the Electric Power Research Institute. "The fact is that we have not planned our infrastructure to support our economy."

Chipmaker Xilinx was caught off-guard last summer when rolling power blackouts in California shut the company down. "Obviously if you don't have power, there is not much you can do," says Matt Jorgensen of Xilinx. "We are not riding bicycles around here."

Blackouts Cost Tech Companies Millions

For most Americans, power that stays on 99.9 percent of the time is pretty good. But for high-tech companies, even 99.99 means occasional blackouts and millions of lost dollars. They need power so reliable it stays on 99.9999 percent of the time.

"Sun Microsystems estimates that the cost of an outage to them runs about a million dollars a minute," says Stahlkopf.

Server farms keep their power steady with sophisticated backup generators that are larger than those used in hospitals. But eventually these huge facilities may become the primary source.

"I would expect in the next two to five years," says Stahlkopf, "you will see a substantial portion of our power needs being generated internally or on site."

It is actually a prospect local utility companies are counting on, because right now, the power companies that keep America's lights on are just barely keeping up.