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How big an eco-hazard is IT equipment?

A hard charge to make stick...

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Are computers bad for the planet? As a consumer of power, IT equipment is certainly all too visible, and is shaping up to become a prime whipping boy for governments striving to get a lid on their CO2 emissions. After anything that burns petrol, PCs, chargers and that arch eco-criminal, standby mode, now come pretty close to the centre of the crosshairs.

And they're being targeted by Brussels. This year, as part of its action plan for energy efficiency, the European Commission will begin to enforce minimum energy performance requirements on a range of electrical appliance categories, including IT equipment and consumer electronics. It has selected 14 priority groups of products which will be subject to energy efficiency labelling and the somewhat more complex EcoDesign Directive.

The labelling end of the deal is relatively straightforward, giving an indication of how much juice an appliance uses to do the job it's supposed to do, whereas EcoDesign is intended to set down broader design requirements for products, dealing with "the consequences of energy consumption, consumption of other materials/resources, waste generation and release of hazardous substances to the environment" and involving "systematic integration of environmental aspects at a very early stage in the product design". (more details here).

At its best, an EcoDesign product could be said to be "best of breed", environmentally speaking, while at the very least EcoDesign will define maximum consumption and efficiency limits for products sold within the EU. By attempting to specify what is and is not acceptable in product manufacture and design, however, it could clearly be controversial, and spark international rows over trade and protectionism.

Energy efficiency labelling is more readily achievable. Among the 14 priority groups nominated are computers, TVs, chargers and PSUs and "standby and off-mode losses", with "special attention" being paid to standby losses.

These are a popular target, and were also of particular interest to MEPs recently, who in addition to demanding the abolition of patio heaters, called for the commission to set a one watt standby mode limit, and to research the likely benefits of moving to zero watt standby.

No sooner said than done. When it comes to environmentally aware computing, Fujitsu-Siemens Computers (FSC) is one of Europe's old-stagers, and last autumn announced zero watt standby monitors, which use capacitors to store sufficient charge to kick them back into action.

Speaking to The Register earlier this year, FSC CTO Dr Joseph Reger unpicked the economics of standby mode. A monitor with a regular power adapter would consume approximately €1.60 worth of power per year, so switching over to zero watt standby, assuming 16 hours of standby time per day, would save less than €1 per monitor per year.

Which, as Dr Reger readily concedes, is not exactly a compelling argument for the immediate replacement of existing kit with low or zero standby mode devices. Financially the "savings" could easily be eclipsed by relatively minor discounts, and manufacturing and recycling costs would be greater than the power consumption-related benefits.

But, as Dr Reger points out, if you could have a zero watt standby monitor for the same price as a 1 watt one, why wouldn't you go for the zero variety?

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