Computer energy use under scrutiny

Wind-up or solar powered PCs?

Broken CD with wrench

Well-honed phrases about cheaper and greater computing power have all but faded from the marketing, sales, and other promotional material of IT vendors and consultants to the sector.

Rising energy costs over the past year, as well as concerns about the scale of availability of energy in the short-term, especially over the winter period, and more strategically over the longer term, are encouraging enterprises to review their energy requirements for computing purposes. This historically somewhat dull subject is assuming an unheard of level of interest and importance.

Computer technology installations both large and small comprise many parts. Power consumption fluctuates so much depending on use that it is extremely difficult to calculate. As a very rough rule of thumb, the quieter a computer is, the lower the power consumption. This is because it is creating less heat, and therefore needs fewer fans to cool it. The main areas of consumption are power supply, high performance graphics cards, and processors. Screensavers do not save energy. Switching-off local printers and determining if computers have energy saving facilities help. Most operating systems will automatically switch the monitor into standby mode if left unused for a specified period of time, specifying the shortest time delay possible - five minutes is ideal.

Mid range desk computers uses between 200W and 300W depending on how hard they are working, but the high-end range can use over 400W, excluding monitors, speakers, printer, network, and other extraneous equipment. Moreover, most computers are excessively powerful for everyday use - something of a status symbol for many people? "Normal" office use of a computer with all the standard office applications, web browser and internet radio open only uses around five per cent of the processor.

Short-term efforts are focused on energy saving with computer installations. At a simple housekeeping level, for example, switching off computers overnight and at weekends, results in energy and cost savings of 70 per cent to 80 per cent. Equally, switching off your monitor when at lunch, or during periods of absence, can halve the energy consumption. Newer computers will also allow the hard-drive to "spin-down" if left idle. Some printers also have similar facilities. However, these procedures are, at best, only housekeeping measures; reminders of energy costs but doing little to combat the growing demand for computing power

Unfortunately, the demand for computing power is growing, encouraged by increasing commercial and recreational use of computer technology and the proliferation of devices using computer technology. How can computing power be contained rather than rationed for the growing demand? Some form of rationing or allocation solution will be the knee-jerk solution, unless an alternative solution is found.

One solution may be found in the analogy of the WEEE Directive, where the supplier has a legal responsibility for safe disposal: the supplier would be responsible for supplying a new and exclusive energy source for new and extended computer equipment, but not replacement equipment after a specified cut-off date.

This would encourage more and extensive research and development into efficient and cost effective sources of power by the hardware vendor community - be it generator, solar, battery or even wind-up power.

  • Applying the inventive intellect and innovative skills of the IT hardware developers to energy sources would be a powerful message to other industries to apply the same logic.
  • The IT hardware sector would provide a very powerful boost to investment in new, alternative and cost-effective energy sources, enabling it to influence creation and development of energy sources for commercial and social benefit.
  • The sector would be able to shake itself free from some elements of the commoditisation model into which it has evolved through maturity.
  • The sector's "social responsibility" rating would rise benefiting its governance profile and some investor ratings.
  • The sector would head-off potentially longer-term draconian energy restriction measures, which could restrict growth in the industry on a more permanent basis.

A more integrated approach to computing and its energy power and sources is essential if the industry to promote cheaper computing power transparently.

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