Columns 2012

We need new ideas

If you’re the kind of Alaskan who believes the only good resource is one we can get out of the ground today and we can worry about tomorrow later, you should stop reading now because this column is going to irritate you.

A story aired on NPR concerning a fishing village in a cold, frozen northern place that is not Alaska. The fishing industry had been hard hit by declining stock and the village was facing imminent economic disaster.  Again, let me repeat, this story was not about an Alaska village, though the outlines might be eerily similar.

What this village did have was ice caves that had been used during the Cold War but were now just sitting there being icy. And in one of those amazingly serendipitous moments, it turns out that server farms for all that data we like having at our fingertips from the Internet have one big cost above almost all others – the cost of keeping the servers cool.

So the village got together with a company that had been paying through the nose for air conditioning that would keep their servers at a temperature where they could function well and offered their caves. The company stored its servers in the caves, thereby savings thousands upon thousands of dollars and resources because they no longer had to pay a steep cooling bill. Nature was doing it for free. And that little fishing village? It’s now got a new economy based on the technology needed to support the ice cave servers.

As I listened to this story, all I could thing about was how Alaska has cold and icy. We have cold and icy coming out the wahzoo. We have ice cellars that would keep those servers so cool you could use them to chill your wine. And we have villages that are now totally connected to the Internet so if a server farm were placed in one of their icy spots, they could provide the manpower and connectivity needed to keep the place humming while allowing people to work AND stay close to home. 

How could none of our politicians have caught on to this yet? We continue to spend millions on lobbying to open ANWR, an effort which, like the War on Drugs, is a blatant failure we refuse to eliminate because somehow just knowing it exists apparently makes us feel better. How about those lobbyists start working on getting us some of these server farms. Bring employment to our villages, bring new resources to our state, give our kids a chance to go home after college and have the potential for real employment when they get there.

As we enter another election season, I find myself hearing the same things from the same interchangeable politicians asking for my vote that I’ve heard for the forty years I’ve lived here. We have to extract our resources. We have to pump out that oil. We have to dig out that copper. We have to use up our resources until there are none left. And then what? What’s left behind for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren?

This resource mantra has become so monotonous and so expected that most of us barely pay any attention to it anymore. Imagine how we might sit up and listen if a candidate said yes, we need to continue to responsibly develop our natural resources but while we’re at it, maybe we should be looking at diversifying our economy into areas that are very renewable – and there is nothing as renewable as the manpower needed to keep the servers going.

I’ve reached the point where I literally ache for a politician to come forward with a new idea. The same old, same old has become boring, repetitive, and – like our ANWR lobbying efforts – somewhat of a failure in that the old ideas seems to have our politicians in such a grip that they wouldn’t know a new idea if it bit them in the butt.

I’m not saying that these server farms would work here or we could even entice theses companies to come north. I’m just wishing that some political candidate or office holder would made the effort to find out if they would and, if they won’t, what else is out there.

Please, someone give us a new idea.