Will AI suck up all our energy, boost our economies or improve efficiency? Potentially, all three

HICKORY, N.C. — When Scott Millar walks through the hall at the Catawba County Economic Development Corporation, he’s proud to point out the various businesses, manufacturers, and projects lining the walls.

“That was the very first one, that was 500,000 square feet,” he said, pointing to a photo of part of Apple’s massive data center.

More than a decade ago, the center opened in Maiden and in the years since, it’s become Catawba County’s largest taxpayer.

“Which helps everybody keep their taxes low,” Millar said. “Every taxpayer in Catawba County has benefitted whether they know it or not.”

Millar said it’s helped the Maiden build a new town hall, a new fire station, and a community center, all while the county reduced the property tax rate. He’s expecting a similar windfall from the $1 billion investment Microsoft has promised after announcing plans to build four data centers.

“The overall goal is improving the quality of life and the expenses of maintaining homes in Catawba County,” he said.

Data centers are filled with the physical hardware that online programs and software use to store information. Essentially, it’s the backbone of the infrastructure that makes our digital lives possible.

During the rise in cloud-based computing, the region around Catawba County earned the title, the North Carolina Data Center Corridor, for the number of projects that opened in the region. Now, with the rise of artificial intelligence, Gabriel Terejanu, an associate professor of computer science at UNC Charlotte, expects the demand for these centers will only rise.

“AI is evolving rapidly and is going to open new frontiers,” he said. “We are fitting more and more data and scientists say we are just starting.”

Western North Carolina is an attractive option to cite these centers because a legacy of textile manufacturing left the area with two big things they need: access to a lot of power and the infrastructure to cycle through a lot of water.

That need only multiplies with artificial intelligence because Terejanu said the AI models are tackling more computations, processing more data than ever before, consuming massive amounts of electricity, and requiring a lot of water, to keep hardware cool. Some scientists predict AI is on track to consume as much energy as the entire country of Ireland, every year.

Rather than looking at the technology as a drain on our resources, Terejanu said there’s massive potential for AI to improve our economies and also our energy consumption. He points to the potential of AI to track energy demand, generation, and potential in real time especially as our grid increasingly incorporates more renewables such as solar and wind.

“It can figure out, should we use wind at this point? Should we use solar?” he said. “How can we combine all of these to reduce the cost?”

Terejanu believes the right AI model would be able to make better predictions taking into account more data and reacting to changes more quickly in ways that significantly improve the efficiency of our energy system.

Imagine water heaters that can lower the temperature by half a degree to conserve power on the hottest day of the year or software that slows down the charger on an electric car, or when energy is peaking in the early hours of a winter morning, or small changes based on a multitude of calculations made in an instant than can save energy without any disruption to consumers.

“There are also constant improvements in software and hardware that not only make AI models faster and more responsive but more energy efficient,” Terejanu said.

Even so, Terejanu said as the technology grows and becomes more accessible to the public, we will likely see a growing demand for massive energy-consuming data centers and power sources that can supply those data centers 24/7.

In communities like Catawba County, Millar hopes continued access to reliable 24/7 energy will mean they’ll continue to benefit from this growing demand.

“We’re certainly looking at opportunities for more data centers and other technologies,” he said. “We want to make sure that we can diversify our economy to make sure that jobs are available in Catawba County for many years.”

While data centers consume massive amounts of power, many modern centers also invest heavily in renewables. The Apple facility in Catawba County includes a 100-acre solar farm and the company has purchased another 200 acres of land to build a second.

Michelle Alfini

Michelle Alfini, wsoctv.com

Michelle is a climate reporter for Channel 9.