Robert Bernard, chief environmental strategist at Microsoft, addressed the Cleantech Forum in San Francisco in March (video here) with a message about the software giant's multidimensional approach to improving energy efficiency.
On a level that's directly visible to consumers, Microsoft has built a bevy of energy-saving functions into its Windows Vista operating system. Vista boasts 35 new energy management features in all. For example, the system automatically puts the computer to sleep after 30 minutes of inactivity, which allows the idle machine to operate at less than 5 watts, versus the 100-250 watts required to power a screen saver.
Another, more dynamic feature constantly monitors how much energy you need for the programs you're using, and automatically regulates the appropriate input of power, so that you consume the smallest amount necessary. According to Bernard, we're often running our computers using a one-size-fits-all level of power, which is more than we need for many standard tasks (Bernard's metaphor of choice compares this system to choosing a Prius instead of a Ferrari for your drive across town).
The larger opportunities for energy conservation, however, lie far beyond our individual computers. Bernard acknowledges that computer software itself is only responsible for about 3-5% of overall IT energy consumption, dwarfed by the load needed to support infrastructure and hardware systems. He noted the energy-saving potential of server consolidation, an approach that many businesses are looking into these days, because server stations, which are costly to set up and maintain, often have far more available capacity than they actually use (according to this article, many operate at as little as 15-20% of their full capacity). An easy-to-use setup model with a user-friendly interface would facilitate consolidation (for more info, see server virtualization). And companies running their own server stations (or renting expensive space from third-party providers) stand to save overhead costs from consolidation by requiring less hardware for the necessary workload.
Bernard also said that Microsoft is working with its many partners to address the need for energy efficiency in "the other 95%" beyond computer software. A large-looming opportunity, he says, is the need for software to manage new clean energy systems as we make the switch to progressive technologies.
"If you're financing the inventions of the future," he told his audience, "those inventions need an infrastructure on which to ride."