You don’t have to follow The Oil Drum to know that energy prices just keep climbing. Even if supply holds up, huge demand will make prices a problem for a long time to come. Can the Internet help reduce that demand?
One obvious answer might seem that we can all stay home and play video games, communicating with each other only by email, but that doesn’t solve a lot in the long run. We still need to get food into all of those homes, and while I telecommute, it only works for certain kinds of jobs. Also, family members often like to see each other in person, at least occasionally.
The other obvious question is that the Internet itself uses energy - is this a problem? Server farms suck down a lot of power, and the computers everyone has at home can be voracious too. Maintaining the infrastructure for making all of this work, and expanding it to rural areas where it could have the most impact on energy use, also requires a lot of energy. (Energy consumption per unit of bandwidth or processing power does seem to keep coming down, though.)
The Internet also creates some direct opportunities for coordination that can save energy. Zipcar, which uses web-based reservations, can help some people avoid buying a car entirely, while others can reduce their need from 2 cars to 1 or 3 cars to 2. Even web-based purchasing combined with standard delivery routes can reduce energy consumption significantly when compared with, say, the 100 recipients of packages all driving in their own cars to a mall ten miles away to buy the same products. (Pedestrian cities already enjoy many of these efficiencies, of course, without needing a fancy network.)
I suspect, though, that we’re only at the very beginning of this process. As energy prices climb, buyers will have ever-greater incentives to find more efficient ways of getting the goods they need, and the Internet offers a cheap platform on which to organize. Will we see a return of local cooperatives, ordering in bulk but minimizing inventory thanks to orders in advance? Might the combination of higher energy prices and the Internet lead to more tightly-connected neighborhoods, or will we all be waiting for the Wal-Mart truck, as many people wait for the Schwan’s truck today?
Or will it just make more sense to restructure where we work, live, and play?