How big an eco-hazard is IT equipment?

A hard charge to make stick...

The key in this part of the field therefore lies in producing low power, more environmentally friendly products at standard price so that they become mainstream, and - here he's clearly in agreement with the commission - making people more aware of their energy footprint via energy labelling. People will go for the lower power product so long as it's not more expensive, and so long as they actually know it's lower power, hence the importance of marking them.

It's a similar story with chargers and PSUs. Power wasted by a typical notebook computer or monitor is approximately 12 Wh per day, which Dr Reger estimates would amount to 12.74 kWh per year, worth approximately €1.27. A similar saving could be made by simply using one 100 watt light bulb for 30 minutes less every day. So implementing a company policy of turning off the lights after everybody's gone home, or better still whenever an office isn't being used, would be vastly more effective than getting worked up about whether or not a charger or PSU is plugged in.

The efficiency of external power units is an issue in addition to "waste" or consumption, and here there are gains that can be made in percentage terms, although again these won't necessarily amount to much in terms of cold, hard cash.

The bulk of external PSUs currently on the market are between 80 and 85 per cent efficient, FSC's current benchmark being 85 per cent. Going much above 85 per cent at the moment would be significantly more expensive (87 per cent is achievable at a premium), and while most manufacturers' equipment exceeds 80 per cent today, not all does.

Efficiency ratings are complicated by the question of load, with PSUs being at their most efficient when under full load. They will also have a "no-load" power consumption level when plugged in, this being 0.5 watts (i.e., negligible) in FSC's case. Load calculation doesn't have a great deal of relevance to monitors, which are broadly on, on standby or off (although brightness setting will have some effect), while the onboard battery of a notebook computer means the CPU load is independent of the PSU load, so your calculations get more complicated.

Although these numbers don't add up to an argument against power efficiency, they put the commission's targets into perspective. It certainly makes sense to develop standard price technology that's more power efficient, but the greatest effect of the commission's energy efficiency plans will lie in raising public awareness of their consumption - the savings to be had from the carbon footprint of individual items of IT equipment are relatively small.

Grasping this might also be beneficial to those elected representatives who're obsessed with "waste" caused by low-impact devices almost to the exclusion of bigger ticket items elsewhere.

"The waste from good external PSUs for notebooks and monitors is almost negligible," says Dr Reger. "Further improvements there generate only marginal savings. But there are still a lot of bad PSUs around in the field or offered by vendors who put cost over responsibility that need replacement. So the public hype around PSUs is justified for old stuff, not for good current and future external PSUs."

Commission figures (for 2004) put this into a broader perspective. In the pre-enlargement EU states, six per cent of power consumption in the home could be ascribed to "consumer electronics and other equipment standby", three per cent to TV and one per cent to office equipment. Heating (including water and aircon) was 36 per cent, lighting 12 per cent and white goods 31 per cent. The power monsters are all to obvious.

The relatively high share white goods have of the total take is particularly significant in understanding the objectives and likely impact on the commission's plans for IT equipment and consumer electronics, because these are intended as a follow-up to earlier drives for energy labelling of white goods. Washing machines, tumble dryers and fridges clearly do use large amounts of juice, so a two-pronged attack on them - flagging consumption levels to consumers and pressuring manufacturers to improve performance - could, and did, achieve significant gains.

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