US computer firms move on energy efficiency

Major US computer and information technology firms are collaborating to make PCs and servers more energy efficient. Meanwhile, Dell is inviting its customers to pay for tree-planting schemes to offset its products’ carbon dioxide emissions.

In June Google and Intel announced they are leading an initiative which aims to cute CO2 emissions worldwide by 54 million tonnes per year by 2010.

The announcement follows Intel’s commitment made last year to push through a three-fold improvement in the energy efficiency of its products. At the time, major PC-buyer Google pushed Intel to go further (ENDS Report 381, pp 25-26 ).

And it appears Intel listened, along with Microsoft, IBM, Dell, HP and Lenovo and half a dozen other computer manufacturers and component suppliers. All have committed to develop products that meet or exceed efficiency targets, which will be progressively tightened over four years.

Initially the targets are based on standards set by the voluntary Energy Star labelling schemes. PC power supplies must have at least 80% energy efficiency by 2007 and 90% by 2010. Servers must meet corresponding targets of 85% and 92%.

Corporate buyers, wooed with potential savings of $5.5 billion in energy costs globally, are being encouraged to commit to buying higher-efficiency models and to use "power management tools".

According to the companies, better use of sleep and hibernate modes on PCs can cut energy consumed during inactivity by 60%, saving $25-$35 per year per PC, including reduced air conditioning costs. Yet this function has been disabled on 90% of systems.

Dell launched its "zero carbon" initiative in June, committing itself to reduce the carbon intensity of its operations, based on revenue, by 15% by 2012.

The initiative will include management of its direct and indirect emissions, by helping clients to reduce the carbon footprint of their IT systems and by introducing products that "provide maximum performance with the least amount of power required".

The carbon intensity target also appears to include carbon offsetting. The company is extending its tree planting scheme to Europe, where its customers can pay £1 per notebook or £3 per desktop to "professionally managed reforestation projects".

The extent to which offsetting will contribute to the target is not clear. Such schemes have been criticised for doing nothing to encourage energy efficiency, while recent research suggests forests in temperate zones absorb far less CO2 than previously thought.

Dell suppliers will be required to report their greenhouse gas emissions. Once collected, Dell will work with each on emissions reduction strategies. Suppliers which fail to report their emissions risk losing future business.

A raft of new commitments from other leading tech firms has also emerged. HP and Sun Microsystems have committed to cut greenhouse emissions by 20% before 2010 and 2012 respectively. IBM, meanwhile, is spending $1 billion per year on green technologies.

"Vendors are being forced to gain a better understanding of the life cycle [of their products and services]," said Simon Mingay, research director at IT analyst firm Gartner.

"During the next five years, increasing financial, environmental, legislative and risk-related pressures will force IT organisations to get greener," he said.

Gartner estimates that the information and communication technology (ICT) sector accounts for 2% of global CO2 emissions, equivalent to aviation emissions.

In the UK, the public sector appears to be responding. In June the government launched a "green shift" public-private taskforce, led by Manchester City Council, to explore new ways to deliver IT services to small businesses and households.

By moving software from desktop PCs to more energy efficient data centres, accessible through small desktop boxes, it claims it could save 98% of the energy used by a PC in operation, 75% of the resources used in its production and would enable the equipment to last three time as long. A pilot programme is set for 2008.

Meanwhile, the energy White Paper, issued in May, says the government will consult on how to improve the performance of energy-using products. The Environment Department (DEFRA) plans to consult on analysis of ICT products later this year.

By the end of the year, the European Commission is due to publish a study that assesses the design options for mitigating the environmental impacts of PCs, and the need for new product standards. The UK is expected to recommend that servers are included in the next tranche of products to be assessed under the energy-using products Directive.

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