As robots come to dominate manufacturing, and automation eats its way into more business processes, societies are beginning to address the future of work for humans. Another issue — for the power industry in particular— is whether programmable machines might also significantly increase electricity use.
In the wealthy countries of Asia, robots have already arrived. South Korea, Singapore and Japan are the three most automated manufacturing economies, according to the International Federation of Robotics. In Korea, 1 manufacturing worker in 21 is a robot. The US, Taiwan and five wealthy European countries fill out the top 10.
Since robots run on electricity, as do other automated processes for moving materials around the factory floor, an electric utility executive might reasonably hope that they will soon drive greater electricity demand. But a look at the past 10 years of electricity consumption in the top 10 countries suggests they might not.
Four countries on the list have increased their consumption since 2006 — Korea's power use is up almost 40 per cent and Singapore’s is up 30 per cent. But Taiwan’s use is up only modestly. And the US, by far the largest electricity consumer in the group, is up by just 1 per cent.
It’s not as if any of these countries are deindustrialised. Germany has a heavily industrial economy, and its producers are automating as much as possible. Siemens, for one, has boosted production at one factory ninefold in three decades without appreciably increasing its workforce. Yet, as a whole, Germany uses 5 per cent less electricity than it did 10 years ago.
To be sure, this is correlation, not evidence, that increasing automation lowers energy use, and there are many other variables in the mix.
Where robots require significant electrical load, they create an economic incentive to conserve electricity elsewhere — in lighting and heating, for example, which serve humans more than machines. The potential for near-total automation — and with it the “lights-out factory” devoid of human labour — would greatly reduce or eliminate the systems designed to keep people comfortable. In Google’s data centres, the temperature is 80 degrees Fahrenheit (27 degrees Celsius) in the “cold aisle” sections where people work, and 120 degrees elsewhere. And the ambient noise is so loud, humans can’t enter without ear protection. Continue the process of automation, and more energy-consuming systems disappear. No people means no refrigeration, no cooking, no TVs in the break room.
Every manufacturing company is looking for low to zero to negative growth in electricity use. So while intensive and pervasive industrial automation must be a tempting narrative for power company executives looking for new sources of demand, it’s more likely that the robot era will arrive with no need for extra energy.
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