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Green Computers
Alex Steffen, 2 Mar 04

Timothy Prickett Morgan's Lean, Mean Green Machines is the best thing I've ever read about the energy crisis computerization is causing, and how we could use more efficient technologies, open source software, grid computing and virtualization to correct it. It's frankly slightly above my geek fluency level, which means I could be getting duped, but the parts I do understand seem solid, well-reasoned and backed by fact. Whattya'll think?

"In the simplest terms, a computer takes energy, in the form of electricity, uses it to store and manipulate information, and releases the vast majority of the energy as heat, noise, and light. The computers we love so dearly are burning far too much electricity and creating far too much heat. They are among the most inefficient devices ever invented, and the industry has had very little incentive to make them more efficient. The Information Age has not yet learned from the mistakes of the Industrial Age.


"Based on data in the United States, Huber and Mills reckoned that it took a pound of coal to create, package, store, and move 2 MB of data. ...the world's PCs and servers together consume 2.5 trillion kilowatt-hours of energy (for themselves and for related environmentals) in a year, or $250 billion in hard, cold cash a year. Assuming that a server or PC is only used to do real work about 15 percent of the time, that means about $213 billion of that was absolutely wasted. If you were fair and added in the cost of coal mining, nuclear power plant maintenance and disposal of nuclear wastes, and pollution caused by electricity generation, these numbers would explode further."
(from Smart Mobs)

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The "$213 billion absolutely wasted" statement is definitely wrong.

Though I think it's reasonable to say that an average machine is only used to do work about 15% of the time, it's important to note that modern computers, and in particular, CPUs (the most energy-dense component), are designed to use significantly less power while not doing work. A modern desktop Pentium 4 chip consumes nearly 100 watts in full use, but "only" about 40 watts at idle.

So, while work may be done only 15% of the time, it may account for 30% or more of the total energy load. There's still a tremendous amount of waste, but that $213 billion figure is so off-the-cuff as to be misleading.

Posted by: Nick on 2 Mar 04

Good call. That makes sense.

Other comments?

Posted by: Alex on 2 Mar 04

Funny to read this today. My father's test PC went 24 hours without AC power today. Solar. ;-) Some fine tuning, and we can toss the power supply and so on. And hook up *my* machine, so I can blog without electricity. ;-)

Posted by: Taran on 2 Mar 04

I believe the Mills report has been generally discredited at this point. There's a summary at
And of course there's the fact that the while PC's and servers are using about the same amount of power that they've always used (albeit there are a lot more of them) they are doing vastly more computing for that same energy input. My PC today has the same size power supply as my first one did twenty years ago, but it's at least a thousand times more powerful from a computing perspective.
Finally the industry does have a very real interest in reducing the power consumption of computers. On of the major engineering challenges that face computer a designer is how to get the heat out of a computer chip. The more energy a chip uses the more heat it generates and too much heat melts the chip. So anything that can be done to reduce the power consumed by a chip is a good thing and actively pursued by the industry. Reduced power also means longer battery life on laptops, and laptop computers now account for over half of all PC sales. The computer industry may not be trying to reduce power usage for altruistic reasons, but they are trying to do it nonetheless.

Posted by: Craig on 3 Mar 04

Craig makes an excellent point about laptops. Q.v. the Dell homepage today, which touts a laptop model that "may be the only multimedia system you need." The idea that a "real" computer must be a big humming box is dying, and that's a good thing as far as energy consumption goes.

I see two other hopeful trends in this regard.

The first is the rise of "silent" PCs and other small-form-factor machines which tend to use less power than their bigger and noisier counterparts.

The second is the dropping prices and growing popularity of flat-panel displays (which have become more affordable in part because of economies of scale created by laptop sales). It's now possible to buy a $500 desktop computer with an LCD display.

Posted by: Paul on 4 Mar 04



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