Powering Down

While I’m on a techno-skeptic riff, I thought I’d follow up Monday’s thinkpiece with a post on some current developments and practical actions for making computers a little more sustainable.

Computers are the enablers of the information age – the vast majority of our workforce now uses one daily. While they save millions of person-hours every day by speeding up tedious tasks, they’re also one of our largest consumers of energy. Server farms, in particular, are huge energy hogs: in 2005, the massive banks of servers needed to keep sites Google and Yahoo running consumed 5,000 megawatts of electricity in the US, most of it lost as waste heat.

Energy isn’t the only environmental issue with computer use. For one thing, the manufacturing process of a PC is resource intensive and involves an array of toxic substances; Phoenix-based ecological architect Tom Hahn estimates that the production of one laptop uses 40,000 pounds of raw materials. Finally, the disposal of “e-waste” presents a few problems. If they don’t end up in a landfill, computers disposed of in the States are often taken apart by hand in Africa, where the toxins inside make workers ill and pollute water sources.

As with most other elements of our society, computers don’t have to be nearly as wasteful and dangerous as they are today. Last Saturday, John Brandon at Extreme Tech explained how to build an energy- and resource-efficient PC from the ground up using widely available components, most of which are better performing to boot. Yesterday, Worldchanging’s Jeremy Faludi interviewed Scott Phipps at VIA, a Taiwanese chip manufacturer with the goal of “carbon-free computing”. With chips that use 1/6 the power of a Pentium and a commitment to reforestation and renewable energy investments to offset projected CO2 use, VIA is thinking creatively about how to deal with the substantial envrionmental issues posed by our most useful machines.

Fortunately, though, you probably don’t need to start from scratch to make a serious dent in your own computer’s impact. First off, get rid of your screensaver and set your desktop to go right into sleep mode. Make sure to turn off your peripherals when you’re done (printer, monitor, etc) – if left on, they’ll draw power even when not in use. A program at Harvard institutionalizing these simple actions is estimated to save the campus $45,000 per year, cutting emissions by 50,000 pounds.

Perhaps the simplest solution of all: use your computer less. Think carefully about the time you spend “plugged in,” whether at work or at home, and try to make the most of it. If you can, participate in Shutdown Day on March 24th: so far, 26,000 people have pledged to make their day computer free.

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One thought on “Powering Down

  1. Nelson Harvey says:

    It is encouraging to see some companies working on the development of “carbon free computing,” and I wanted to point out that the UN recently launched an initiative called Solving the E-waste Problem (STEP) to establish a global recycling standard and help individual countries develop their own policies.

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/6420397.stm

    These are encouraging steps, but at least two things concern me. First, in addition to “carbon-free computing,” companies should be actively looking at ways to make computers less toxic in the first place. On this score, it seems to me that Europe’s program, where companies are charged with disposing of the waste from products they generate, has potential. We can only hope that the UN program will address the toxicity of computers, rather than just developing safer ways of dealing with it. After all, there will always be e-waste recyclers who fall through the cracks and do not recieve training.

    The second issue I want to bring up is that between Moore’s Law (whereby the number of transistors on an integrated circuit is said to double every 24 months) and the perpetual marketing drive for “newer, better, and faster,” computers, it is not surprising that we are seeing growing volumes of e-waste. Short of some major social engineering, the only way I can immediately think of addressing the problem is by insuring that recycling programs are living up to their names and recycling products rather than down-cycling them. Keeping what Bill McDonough calls “technological nutrients” in the technological stream is the core principal that I hope motivates the UN program.

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