Reducing Energy Waste Over a Computer’s Full Lifespan

We have partnered with Microsoft to run key findings from a recent white paper entitled The IT Energy Efficiency Imperative as a ten-part series. To read the full series, click here. The white paper can be downloaded here in PDF format.

Lack of IT department control over end user computing environments can lead to a significant amount of wasted energy and higher-than necessary office building cooling costs.

Organizations with large numbers of PCs and monitors should understand the cost of space, cooling, and direct energy use by employee equipment through charge-backs to their business units. Closing the loop in this manner provides a solid basis for users to take action. IT departments can also provide guidance, ensuring that employees choose energy efficient PCs, make certain that power management capabilities are enabled and optimized, and require that decommissioned PCs are unplugged, returned, and disposed of properly.

It is particularly important that developers of PC applications ensure that applications support the power management capabilities of the hardware and operating system—for example, by allowing PCs to automatically sleep when idle but not while they are doing something useful. Applications that are “aware” of the current power source—battery or AC power—and react accordingly can also help improve the productivity of mobile users. Developers of Windows-based applications can find more information on these energy-smart development practices at http://microsoft.com/energysmart”>the Windows Developer Center.

But still, the question remains:

To Sleep or Not to Sleep?

Turning computers off, or configuring them to sleep when inactive, can be a very simple way to reduce energy use. But because the computer manufacturing process itself has a significant environmental impact, arbitrarily turning computers off when idle is not necessarily the best way to amortize this impact over the life of the equipment. A better strategy might be to have idle computers perform useful computation instead, assuming excess power is available on the grid—particularly from renewable sources whose energy would otherwise be wasted. Mechanisms to enable this type of use could be integrated into public “volunteer computing” platforms and could conceivably involve some form of reimbursement to the energy bill payer for the electricity consumed.

The purchase of too many computers that are then underutilized can also have negative environmental consequences. Manufacturing of computers consumes a significant amount of energy, water, and raw materials (including so called “conflict minerals.”) Such equipment typically becomes e-waste within just a few years. In the European Union, for instance, no more than one-third of e-waste is responsibly recycled in a verifiable way. The remaining e-waste often ends up in landfills or is shipped to developing countries, where it is typically dismantled using methods that can often contaminate the surrounding land, air, and water with toxic metals and chemical compounds, threatening the health of unprotected workers and others in the surrounding areas.

Many governments are also strengthening regulations governing e-waste.

In addition to existing laws based on European Union directives (such as WEEE and RoHS) that are aimed at manufacturers of electronic goods, most municipalities now prohibit the disposal of e-waste through standard waste streams and require it to be recycled.

Concern over being labeled “e-waste criminals” who dump broken electronics in developing countries is leading many large organizations to require assurances from recyclers that discarded equipment will be recycled and disposed of in an environmentally sound manner.

We’ll be exploring these issues in depth in the coming weeks. Follow along here