Thursday, October 1, 2009

5 Signs The Computer Industry Is Finally Going Green

With world leaders currently convening high-level negotiations on how best to address the rising threat of global warming, and public apprehension about the phenomenon at an all-time high, it’s encouraging to note several recent developments coming from the high-tech sector.

It’s about time. Our ever-shrinking world is abuzz with activity attempting to address the manmade rise of greenhouse gases. Eco-visionary James Lovelock published a radical idea in Nature to increase ocean uptake of CO2 through giant ocean tubes. New Zealand has kicked off an ambitious plan to get 90% of its energy from renewable sources by 2025. JC Penny, Office Depot and Kohl’s have announced green building plans. In May, General Electric said it had doubled sales from environmentally friendly products, to $12 billion over, in two years.

One need only take a look at any online discussion thread of green issues to see anxiety, and often outright ridicule, about the sizable ecological impact so many of us web surfers are having. Computers are hard to (and rarely) recycled, and when they are it’s typically in developing nations by people without proper training or safety gear. Often they are children. That’s distressing, because today’s computers are made with a sizable amount of lead, cadmium, brominated fire retardants and plastics that can leach toxic breakdown products.

While processor speed has faithfully followed Moore’s Law, energy use has also swelled, as more and more people are able to afford hardware, and mobile devices have proliferated. Of the $250 billion spent globally each year powering computers, about 85% of that energy was simply wasted idling.

Computers and related equipment have been blamed for causing as much global warming as the airline industry, Pat Gelsinger, senior vice president for Intel’s digital enterprise group, recently told the press.

The industry has been gradually finding a green conscience. True, there have been some eco-pioneers, from NEC’s short-lived PowerMate Eco to the debate over whether a black search engine (e.g. Blackle) would cut back on global power drain. Now we have sophisticated power saver and hibernation modes and laptops that sip rather than guzzle from the plug. The widespread adoption of liquid crystal displays (LCDs) represents a substantial savings over less-efficient cathode ray tube (CRT) technology . But some bright new signs recently coming out of Silicon Valley suggest great green things to come.

1. Dell Going Carbon Neutral

Computer giant Dell continues its ascent up the green path. This week Michael (as he is known on company blogs) announced the manufacturer’s latest goal: to become the first major computer company to become carbon neutral. That means reducing emissions across all Dell facilities and operations, buying renewable power and offsetting the remaining balance (including business travel), at least in part through a cooperative tree-planting program.

As if taking a play from Wal-Mart, Dell will also be requiring suppliers to account for and report their emissions. Michael underscored the firm’s commitment to roll out ever more energy-efficient products.

2. Solar-Powered Workstations?

Lenovo’s new ultra-efficient “Blue Sky” A61e PC can actually be powered with a portable solar panel, namely the Solar-PowerPAC II from Advanced Energy Group. The heavy cart-on-wheels costs $1,229, and likely won’t be widely adopted anytime soon (although Dell has expressed a lot of interest in the concept). It sure stimulates the imagination!

Regardless of the solar panel possibility, Chinese manufacturer Lenovo has much to be proud of under the Blue Sky’s hood (which, incidentally, looks oddly like an old Betamax machine). The PC and its packaging is made of as much as 90% reusable/recyclable materials. Lenovo claims organizations that deploy 50 or more A61es should see energy savings of $1,000 a year, resulting in 10 fewer tons of carbon dioxide emissions.

At $399, the unit is certainly affordable. It received gold status from the Green Electronics Council’s Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT).

3. Green Data Centers

A recent EPA report found that data centers in the U.S. have the potential to save up to $4 billion in annual electricity costs through more energy efficient equipment and operations, as well as management best practices.

According to a recent survey of senior IT executives by data center operator Digital Realty Trust, about 55 percent of companies have already established detailed strategies for improving the energy efficiency of their data centers.

4. USB 3.0 Promises Energy Savings

Last week the “SuperSpeed” USB Promotions Group announced some preliminary specs for the future of peripheral connectivity. According to the group, the two main goals of SuperSpeed USB (USB 3.0) are to boost the data transfer rate by 10 times and to dramatically reduce power consumption. The USB 3.0 spec is expected to be finalized sometime in the middle of 2008, with initial devices available in 09 and broad deployment by 2010.

5. Industry Announces Sweeping Conservation Targets

Titans Google, Intel, Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Lenovo, IBM, Microsoft, Yahoo and Sun Microsystems have all joined with the EPA, the World Wildlife Fund and others to develop an ambitious industry-wide goal of slashing the amount of energy computers consume. The Climate Savers Computing Initiative has the goal of reducing computer energy use by 90% by 2010. If there’s follow through, the scheme is expected to save $5.5 billion in energy costs and cut emissions by 54 million tons a year, the equivalent of 11 million cars or 20 coal-fired power plants.

Industry observes have estimated that the energy-efficient technology will likely raise the price of each computer by around $20. However, consumers will save money in lower electricity bills. Some utilities may even offer rebates for new “green” PCs.

Final Thought

The leading edge of the fast-paced tech world has a distinctly green tinge. Not only should that improve reliability and ultimately save everyone money, but it will go a long way to protecting our precious planet. And it should evaporate much of the green guilt of computer users, and silence some of those flame wars on blog discussion threads.

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