Faster and greener? The eco pro's and con's of computing
Feb 7, 2010, 18:20 GMT
Berlin - This should make netizens feel better about themselves: being online and saving the environment can go hand in hand.
For example, shopping online, instead of travelling to the stores by car, means cutting back on gas consumption and associated emissions.
But there is a downside. Many online surfers are unaware of the enormous energy consumption that goes with running the internet. Still, even though end users aren't the biggest consumers, they can still do a lot to keep energy consumption under control and even save a little money for good measure.
Online service providers run the computing centres that serve as the 'hotspots of energy consumption,' says Siegfried Behrendt of the IZT Institute for Future Studies and Technology Assessment in Berlin. About half the energy consumed goes just to cooling the centres. After all, a room full of mainframe computers needed to run these systems gives off incredible amounts of heat.
On top of that comes the energy consumption of normal consumers. 'Altogether, that means that all information and communications technology devices in Germany had a consumption of 55 terawatt hours in 2007,' says Behrendt. 'That equals 10 per cent of all power consumption.'
That also means carbon dioxide emissions linked to computer use rival those associated with the domestic German air travel market. 'That is considerable and has some serious climate politics repercussions.'
That doesn't make the internet bad. It's still a good thing. But private users can become a part of the problem if they just surf without a goal, clicking randomly. Every Google search consumes energy, reports the UBA, a German environmental group - perhaps not much individually, but it adds up.
Experts recommend targeted use of search engines for quicker access to desired information. 'It's also a question of time use,' says Behrendt.
There is no shortage of intelligent ways to put those computing centres on an energy diet. Some centres take the heat given off by computers to provide heat, says Markus Schaffrin from eco, another German-based environmental organization.
Others just turn the air conditioning down, letting the centres warm by about five degrees Celsius, still sufficient for the computers to do their job. Behrendt sees potential energy savings potentials of up to 50 per cent at most computing centres. 'And there are already a lot of savings techniques being used.'
But internet-ready devices are ever using more and more power, says Behrendt - especially because the web is growing more important to them.
'Estimates indicate that consumption through 2020 will climb by another 20 per cent.' That's partially because the system is going to grow to include more gadgets. Online-capable televisions and gaming consoles add to the burden.
So, what can a private user do? And what does he stand to gain? UBA recommends surfing quickly, using a DSL connection with a high data-transfer rate, which is always a plus for the end user. 'The longer a download lasts, for example, the more energy that's consumed.' says Behrendt. Thus, faster speeds help the environment a little.
Whatever information is downloaded shouldn't be burned onto CD or DVD, warns the UBA. That costs more energy and raw materials. Another idea - which might not be to the liking of people who prefer to save all documents - is that not every email has to be printed out.
Cloud computing - accessing applications and storage kept remotely - has an 'enormous savings potential,' says Behrendt. Even if it might mean more data flows, it means less software stored on hard drives. That could mean thinner computers that don't consume as much energy.