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Time for computing to embrace the idea of saving energy

Lord Redesdale

One form of waste that comes in for a lot of criticism is that of electricity. Companies that leave office buildings lit up like Christmas trees outside of office hours is a clear indicator that they do not see energy as a high priority.

But the rise in fuel prices should change this. The Carbon Reduction Commitment, brought in as a straight tax in the 2010 Spending Review, has introduced a whole new level of taxation, which is almost certain to be expanded year on year as Chancellors look to increase tax take on a ‘polluter pays’ principle.

We use computers that are the equivalent of a Ferrari when all we need is a bicycle

Indeed, if the Government is to meet its carbon reduction targets in the 2008 Climate Change Act, it will need to use the stick of taxation to force companies to take seriously the need to reduce their energy use.

One of the major problems, however, is that many companies have very little understanding of where exactly their electricity is being used. The waste industry survives on understanding the composition and potential value of waste streams. The same methodology needs to be used by companies to understand their energy use.

A couple of simple facts that have a surprising impact on the way people think relate to the energy cost of emails. Each email has been calculated to average out at 4g of carbon in its sending, storing and archiving. Large files, many of which are forwarded without a second thought, have the energy equivalent of boiling a kettle.

Computing is one of the most energy intensive activities that we undertake. The desktop in the office has more computing power than Nasa had at its disposal when it put a man on the moon. Yet most people only ever use them for word processing and office management programmes. We regularly supply computers that are the equivalent of Ferraris when all they really need is a bicycle.

A simple method of reducing the energy use of a company is to monitor all different forms of electricity use, isolate the energy used by computing and make the IT manager responsible for reducing it by 50%. These reductions are entirely achievable by changing desktops, energy management programmes and by virtualising or outsourcing the company’s data to energy efficient, cloud-based servers.

At the moment there is almost no impetus in the computer industry to seriously embrace energy saving. This is odd considering the enormous strides made by mobile phones with extremely complicated programs running off a mobile phone battery. 

The drivers in computing have always been ‘bigger’ and ‘faster’. The need to reduce carbon should start to bring about a cultural U-turn as computer companies engage in competition to make their product as energy efficient as possible.

Of course you do not have to believe that the culture change will take place but I’ll make a prediction that electricity prices will have gone up by a minimum of 20% by 2012, a scary thought in the straightened economic times.

How many companies will change their computers to reduce energy? Powerful desktops could well go the route of SUVs, far fewer manufacturers make them, as the demand from the consumer has disappeared.

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