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Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba is a writer and journalist based in Mexico City. She has extensive experience writing and editing environmental features, travel pieces, local news in the…

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The AI Conundrum: Green Energy Hero Or Carbon Culprit?

  • AI plays a critical role in renewable energy forecasting, smart grids, and energy distribution, promising vast efficiency gains in the green transition.
  • The computing power required by AI has a significant carbon footprint, comparable to entire developed nations and set to increase.
  • For AI to be environmentally beneficial, it needs to be optimized for energy efficiency, trained using clean energy, and its necessity carefully evaluated in each application.

Artificial Intelligence presents a catch-22 for the renewable energy industry. Meeting decarbonization goals in time to avoid the worst impacts of climate change will require an unprecedented amount of coordination between economic sectors in record time, which will be nearly impossible to carry out smoothly without machine learning. However, as the uptake of artificial intelligence expands, so too does its already enormous carbon footprint, raising the question of whether the use of AI in the decarbonization movement is essential or counterproductive. 

The global green energy transition will require a scale and speed of systems transformation never before seen in history. In order to go as smoothly as possible, this process will rely heavily upon massive, complex and nuanced computing power. Enter Artificial Intelligence. Around the world, AI is already playing a major role in renewable energy forecastingsmart gridscoordination of energy demand and distributionmaximizing efficiency of power production, and research and development of new materials – and that’s just the beginning. 

The role of AI in the energy industry is about to take off thanks to a rapidly changing power sector, the scale of the transformation and the investments needed to make it happen, and an increasingly complex system of grid distribution and decentralization. Due to all of these rapid and sweeping systems-level changes, AI will be integral in ensuring maximum efficiency within decarbonization initiatives. Reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in the energy sector alone will require infrastructure investments costing between $92 trillion and $173 trillion by 2050, according to estimates by BloombergNEF. AI has a massive role to play here, as “even small gains in flexibility, efficiency or capacity in clean energy and low-carbon industry can therefore lead to trillions in value and savings.” 

The irony: all of this is going to require enormous amounts of computing power, which means enormous amounts of energy. Already, the carbon footprint of Artificial Intelligence is almost as large as that of Bitcoin – which is to say, equivalent to that of entire developed nations. “Currently, the entire IT industry is responsible for around 2 percent of global CO2 emissions,” Science Alert recently reported. What’s more, consulting firm Gartner projects that if business continues as usual, the AI sector alone will consume 3.5 percent of global electricity by 2030.

"Fundamentally speaking, if you do want to save the planet with AI, you have to consider also the environmental footprint," Sasha Luccioni, researcher of ethics at the open-source machine learning platform Hugging Face, told The Guardian. "It doesn't make sense to burn a forest and then use AI to track deforestation."

It has been estimated that training GPT-3, the predecessor of ChatGPT, required approximately 1,287 megawatt hours of electricity and 10,000 computer chips – that’s enough to power about 121 homes in the United States for an entire year. It’s also enough energy to produce around 550 tonnes of carbon dioxide. Indeed, it’s estimated that Open.AI, the creators of ChatGPT, spend about US$700,000 per day on computing costs alone to run its chatbot service for its 100 million users around the globe. 

In short, we have to be extremely careful with the use of AI to make sure that it does more good than harm – and that’s just in reference to its environmental impacts, leaving all of the other ethical and moral quandaries aside. The first major consideration when deciding how or whether to use AI in a renewable energy application is to determine whether it’s strictly necessary. Often, the use of AI can be more seductive than pragmatic. If it is necessary, engineers can next consider whether the energy used for the training is responsibly sourced, whether workloads are designed for maximum energy efficiently, and calculate and consider embedded emissions.

“If AI is optimized for maximum energy efficiency and trained using clean energy sources, it’s a no-brainer for the energy transition,” Oilprice reported earlier this year. But that’s a big if, especially considering how new AI is, and how poorly understood machine learning is by many of the private sector decision-makers who would make the call, and by public sector policymakers who could and should regulate its ethical use. 

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com 

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