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VIA's Carbon-Free Computing
Jeremy Faludi, 5 Mar 07
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VIA is a Taiwanese chipmaker that makes very power-efficient processors for computers and mobile devices. According to their numbers, their chips use less than a sixth the energy of an Intel Pentium, and less than a quarter the energy an AMD Athlon uses. In addition to efficiency, VIA has started a program called "carbon-free computing", where they offset the carbon that will be produced by the manufacturing and lifetime energy use of their CPU's. They do these offsets by building renewable power generation in developing countries, restoring forest and wetlands, and doing energy conservation.

I recently had the chance to talk with Scott Phipps, the international relations manager at VIA. Here's the interview. We discuss both VIA and the Solar Computing Community Centers that Phipps has built.

What do you do for VIA, Scott?

I was brought on board to do relations with international organizations and governments. Basically, what I'm doing with the international relations department is what's called clean computing, which is an umbrella terminology for several things we're doing, including solar computing, carbon-free computing, energy-efficient computing, RoHS, and quiet computing. Those are the five core areas. My background is in sustainable development.

VIA just makes efficient processors, yes? Or are there other things you make that could have an effect on energy use? (RAM, motherboards, etc.)

Predominantly it's CPU's.

In the "solar computing" projects, are you at VIA actually doing solar installations, or are you partnering with an outside company that does solar installations and you're spec'ing what needs to be generated for the computers?

How it works is that there's three areas. What I've been pushing is the idea that there's a great deal of capacity in renewables and conservation. For instance, wetlands comprise about 4-6% of the Earth's land mass, but they sequester 25% of the world's CO2. So they're very efficient in that way, but there are also other benefits: natural habitats and whatnot. That's my background, is international development, so that's why I'm really pushing for these areas. Reforestation of course is a good thing, too, but I tend to gravitate to energy efficiency, then wetlands, and then reforestation.

But as far as going out and doing projects, yeah, I go and set them up. I'll go and make the arrangements with the stakeholders, and we'll design a facility and see how many PC's they require; we'll run those either off of direct current, or connect them up to the power grid. The next project I'm hoping to set up will be solar and wind.

What are some of the things VIA does to make chips more efficient? Reducing transistor leakage? Making smaller features to avoid resistance by shortening pathways?

Pretty much a combination. What's happened is, internally there's been a big focus on the fact that there's such a race for speed and ramping up the power, but an analogy that works is, you could be driving a hummer, but do you use all the features? Or would you be better off driving a Prius? So for example, the carbon-free PC uses the C7M processor, which is advantageous because it has a TDP [Thermal Design Power] maximum of 20 watts at 2 gigahertz. But it also has step-down technology, which means that when it's in different modes--sleep or idle modes--its power consumption dramatically ramps down. Especially when you're working with power sources like renewables, every source of power draw is critical. As you know, with a PC, you've got your processor, and you've got your power supply, and you've got your monitor, all three of which are the biggest power consumers. Switching to LCD's has made a big difference in monitors, but now the focus is on getting power supplies down to something that's more practical. And with the carbon-free PC, it has an external power supply; a lot of detailed attention was paid to the power consumption.

The step-down power usage of the processor, how quickly does that happen? Is that every clock cycle, or every few milliseconds, or what?

The PowerSaver Step Down technology (dual pll with a clock speed of 1 cycle) for the C7-M processor is in real time.

The idea of VIA's "carbon-free computing" is that you're doing offsets for the chips' projected lifetime CO2 use. How much do you have to do per chip, and how much would you have to do per computer, if you wanted to offset a whole machine?

I'll start off with reforestation. Reforestation is obviously a good form of sequestration, with the added benefit of natural habitat. But with renewables you can offset significantly more processors than you could through reforestation. And with wetlands, it's quite amazing, people for the most part don't realize the validity they have. The frustrating part is the derogatory perception people have of it--it's often thought of as useless land, and people will often did what they could to turn it into farmland or industrial or residential land.

Okay, so the power usage. There are six primary areas here. This was all done in tandem with third-party carbon offset groups in the UK, so we were able to base it on a logical rationale of power consumption. First, the typical usage profile is 36.8%, which is how much time people actually use their computer per day, how much time the chip spends at its max TDP during average use, how often it'd be in other modes. For hours, they used 24, the whole day rather than just an eight hour workday, because they've already factored in the usage profile. Then 365 days a year; the processor's lifetime is taken as 3 years, which seems to be the industry standard. Convert to kilowatts, and multiply by .0501 kg of Carbon produced per kilowatt. The C7-M, based on those calculations, the carbon emissions range is around 97 kg of CO2. And if you were looking at an Intel Pentium D, it would be 630 kg, or an AMD Athlon 64, which would produce 431 kg.

Let me give you a brief summary of the installation we did in the south pacific. We partnered with a solar energy company called Motech; their engineers and our engineers get together on a weekly basis to do a little think-tank session of ideal scenarios to tweak and maximize things with renewables. What we set up was a series of centers that have 3, 6, or 12 PC's with external power supplies, all with LCD monitors; then a printer, and sometimes LED lighting if they don't have lighting available to them. We set it up so it can be self-contained and run on direct current, or if they have a power grid available, we will bring an inverter. But often the power at these places is often intermittent. The other thing I've found is that it's often very costly. For example, the project I did in Samoa--if you take their closest wealthy "Western" neighbor, New Zealand, they're paying six times the price for power that New Zealand is paying. When you factor in, too, that they're a developing country, it obviously makes it difficult for their daily lives. So solar is a viable option, and the amount of sun they have is quite something. But wind turbines would have been a very feasible thing as well; I wouldn't have relied on them exclusively, but putting in a residential turbine as backup would have been a very good thing to do. Now, those setups break down like this: each option is based on a multiple of three PC's, at about 50 watts per PC plus 65 watts for the LCD monitor, plus the printer and whatnot which we calculated at 25 watts, and lighting 20 watts. So of the three options (3, 6, or 12), you have: the 3 PC setup uses 390 watts, 6 PC's uses 735 watts, and 12 PC's use 1025 watts. The 3 PC setup is sequestering 12,597 kg of carbon; the 6 PC setup, 23,741 kg, and the 12 PC setup, 46,029 kg. That's based on an average of PV panels' 20-year warranty, assuming that system will be operational for its full warranty. That's just putting it into some basic numbers.

A lot of the attention has been toward the efficiency side of things. There's an internal belief that people's metrics will start to change, and we'll start to look at things not just by speed factor or power factor, but realizing 'this is what I need, so this is what I'll get.' And in the developing world, where power is often intermittent, and quite costly too; not just in the Western world.

How much battery capacity do you build into those installations?

Now you're talking my area of interest. For the 3 PC setup, what's there in total is three PC's, a printer/fax/copier/scanner, all running off two 175-watt monocrystalline panels, an inverter, a power supply, the wiring, and the batteries. We use two deep-cycle batteries, so they last for many years, not a shallow-cycle battery like a car battery. This is a community center, so we assume people will be there from morning 'till night, so the whole setup with solar is based on the idea that there'll be an eight-hour usage profile. We tweaked it so that if there's evening usage, people will still have power, and would even have some lighting too.

Would the batteries be enough to let the center run all night long, or just a couple hours?

You know solar trackers? When we put the system together, I didn't factor in a tracker. But we had the panels on a frame, and we said why don't we turn this into a manual tracker [physically moved by a person], so you can maximize seasonal sun or even daily sun, with a little twist of the panels. The automatic motorized trackers are expensive, but that isn't.

The batteries we chose are about twice the size of a car battery, so not the little golf-cart-size deep-cycle batteries. And that's enough for their energy requirements. You could add another battery, especially if someone was attentive to doing the tracking. With panels, when I was starting out a panel would be 75 - 80 W and they're usually around 15% efficient; the 175 W panel is bigger, but not so big that it's unmaneuverable. So that's the panel of choice now.

And getting back to what VIA does, can you tell me what puts VIA ahead of Sun, P.A. Semi, Transmeta, or other competitors who are working to make more efficient CPU's?

I think what it is, is there's been a lot of talk about efficiency for a while now. I'm just glad to see big business start to embrace this idea of sustainability. It's a great thing that it appears to be coming a universal element, and they're starting to realize the benefits of it. VIA's been very progressive. Efficiency has been a key thing for them here for six or seven years now.

What's state-of-the-art in eco-friendly circuit boards? It seems like progress is slow to get recyclable boards, or avoid etching copper rather than printing it. Is VIA doing work on this?

That's the next step, to get into the whole recycling thing. But they're a fabless company, they don't manufacture. That's why we haven't gotten there yet. When that's going to be up and running, I would guess it's going to take the better part of a year if we can get there with that. We don't have any formal dates yet.

You're using a "TreeMark™ Rating" to judge how green your chips are. Can you tell me more about it, and whether other chipmakers will be using this same standard?

A few months after, Dell did something similar to what we're doing. There's the "Treemark", but there's also the "Sunmark", relating to the photovoltaics. The Treemark was thought up to be a succinct visual for people, but in the Sunmark label, each sun represents a thousand C7-D or C7-M processors. So with [a 3 PC solar installation] you have two suns, the actual number is 1,938; [a 6 PC installation] offsets 3,876 processors, and [a 12 PC installation] offsets 7,752. The focus is far more towards renewable energy projects, then conservation of wetland projects, then reforestation. That's how we rank it in terms of where we invest the time and money. There's always a third party that certifies and oversees--monitoring and evaluation that the numbers we're touting are verified. The initial tree planting was done in the UK, and that was verified by Carbon Footprint. We'll be using organizations either in the UK or in the US for that; when there're projects in India or China, we'll search out to see whether there is a third-party certifier there, but if there's not, we'll stay with our US or UK partners.

And are the solar computing installations charitable? Or do they make money?

No, it's based on the idea that once they have sold a certain number of units, they go do a renewable energy project in the developing world. Like when you buy a Dell you can pay a certain amount extra to offset the carbon. It's really two birds with one stone. Because it's setting up computers, you have your carbon offsets, but you also have information centers or kiosks that are there for the public, so they can address their issues, such as e-governance, health, and start small or medium-sized enterprises too. The last installation I set up, it was in a very rural location but there were tourist communities on either side of it, within a mile. So tourists drop by now and pay a small fee to use the internet and the word processing there, so they were able to create a small business out of this, on top of their educational classes and their health classes. So you've got digital divide issues and environmental issues.

How many of these installations does VIA have, and how many more do they plan to do?

I've got a couple set up for the not-too-distant future. We set up one in Mali, one in the south pacific, and we've got a couple set to be started in the next few months. We have a couple other centers, too, but they don't use renewables, they were set up before we started using renewables. the renewables we favor are solar and wind, but I've been exploring biomass too. How many more installations will be done is undetermined so far. I've been discussing that with them. It will depend, of course, on chip sales. It's a very new endeavor, and we're just building this up.

Well, I wish you good luck, and hope that you get to build many of them!

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I like the concept of carbon free computing.

But, are you sure that it offsets the energy used in manufacturing the CPU? Most of these computer carbon offsetting plans just look at the electricity needed to run them, not including the energy used to manufacture them.

And as this report states, 81% of the life cycle energy use of a computer is used in production. So, if you are only offsetting the usage phase, you are missing 4/5 of the total.

If this really does offset manufacturing energy (including the energy required to manufacture the silicon wafers), can you ask them how much energy/carbon emissions they estimate it uses? In other words, how much energy is it take for them to manufacture a CPU (or a complete computer)? I am curious how their numbers compare with those in the report I referenced.


Posted by: Fat Knowledge on 5 Mar 07

So where can I buy a motherboard fitted with these chips?

Posted by: Michael on 6 Mar 07 (UK based) sell a bunch of VIA's boards. If you're googling around, look for "EPIA", or "mini ITX" or "nano ITX" (both small form factor motherboards - 17x17cm boards for mini, 12x12cm for nano).

Posted by: Frank Shearar on 6 Mar 07

Hey, all.
Scott read the article and just wanted to clarify a couple points. From the email he sent me:

"One is dealing with your question “VIA just makes efficient processors, yes? Or are there other things you make that could have an effect on energy use? (RAM, motherboards, etc.)?. A more complete answer to that question is that “the focus began with energy efficient silicon platforms that have enabled VIA to provide energy efficient solutions for chipsets, ultra mobile devices, the Mini ITX, embedded components and a range of other possibilities."

"The second thing I just wished to clarify that “wetlands comprise about 4-6% of the Earth's land mass, but they contain roughly 25% of the world's soil carbon."

Also, I asked him about your question, Fat Knowledge, because it's a good one. I'd assumed that manufacturing energy was in there as well, because it is very important, but apparently it's not. He said "the present focus is upon the processor’s estimated lifetime of 3 years. This may develop in the future as we further the program." Quite unfortunate; I'm much less impressed now. Although the figure you quote of 81% of energy use being manufacturing (thanks for including the link) is for a computer overall, not for the CPU. The balance for the chip itself may be better (or it may be even worse, which is likely given the small power draw during their lifetimes, and given my experience in the semiconductor industry, seeing chips made.)

I'll email him back and suggest he push on that.

Posted by: Jeremy Faludi on 6 Mar 07


Thanks for following up.

You might want to put a strikethough over the manufacturing part in the original post.

Here is the entire UN University report if you are interested.

I also did some additional analysis in this blog post.

The manufacturing of the semiconductor is the most energy intensive part of making a computer, taking 11.5% of the lifetime energy (compared with 19% for the electricity use for 3 years for the entire computer and monitor).

If you do come across any information on the amount of energy needed to manufacture PCs, CPUs or monitors, I and I bet many of your WorldChanging readers would love to read about.

Posted by: Fat Knowledge on 7 Mar 07



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