I’m often asked what can be done to reduce technology’s impact on the environment. Before I answer that, I usually like to point out that technology can have a net-positive effect by reducing the need for transportation and materials and generally making things more efficient. However, there is a lot of opportunity to reduce the amount of energy that technology consumes while it is operating, and to also support more environmentally-friendly manufacturing and disposal practices. For instance, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, PC power management such as those built into Vista operating system can save you about $50 each year for every desktop computer. Used widely, power management tools could shave $500 million off the nation’s energy bill and eliminate 3 million tons of global warming pollution.
Here are some tips I use when considering my own purchasing and use of PCs and monitors, and I hope you find them helpful.
1. Consider the PC and Monitor you are purchasing:
Laptops vs Desktops – If you’re concerned about saving energy, choosing a laptop over a desktop PC might be your best bet, even if you plan to use it with an external monitor and keyboard. Many modern laptops consume less than 30 watts when running at full performance, compared with a modern desktop PC that idles around 60W and can consume in excess of 150W at full tilt -and that’s not including the monitor. Many new small form-factor laptops idle at less than 15W – less than the power used by a typical Compact Fluorescent Light (CFL) bulb.
ENERGY STAR rated PCs and Monitors – These days it’s almost impossible to find a monitor or PC from a reputable manufacturer that doesn’t have an ENERGY STAR label on it. ENERGY STAR rated devices have earned their rating through meeting a rigorous set of guidelines and qualified products must now meet energy use guidelines in three distinct operating modes: standby (off mode), sleep mode, and while computers are being used. Also, qualified computers must also include a more efficient power supply (typically an 80 Plus rated version). While ENERGY STAR is a United States government standard, countries around the world are adopting the standard. Most people don’t realize though that the ENERGY STAR requirements are getting tougher, so the energy savings on newer PCs are likely to be better than a similar model from previous years.
LCDs vs. CRTs – An LCD monitor can consume half to two-thirds as much power as the an equivalent-sized CRT monitor, which is great news if you are in the market for a new display. However, many folks tend to ‘trade-up’ when the buy a new monitor, so potentially you may be consuming even more energy than you were with a small CRT. Along with checking how many watts the monitor consumes when it is active, simply turning down the brightness can save a significant percentage of the monitor’s energy use also. Plus your eyes will thank you after a long day of staring at the screen!
Look for EPEAT – The EPEAT (Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool) database evaluates electronic products (desktops, laptops and monitors) on 51 total environmental criteria and can help identify environmentally preferable electronic products. The three-tiered EPEAT rating system includes 23 required criteria and 28 optional criteria. The optional criteria are used to determine if the equipment receives EPEAT Bronze, Silver, or Gold recognition. In addition, due to EPEAT’s requirement that registered products meet ENERGY STAR specifications, these products will consume less energy throughout their useful life. EPEAT was originally developed for institutional or business line purchasers, so many PCs targeted at individual consumers are not yet EPEAT rated, and recycling services provided by the manufacturer for EPEAT-rated PCs and monitors may not be available to individuals. EPEAT is a US-based rating but has been adopted by countries such as Canada, Brazil, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.
2. Consider how you use your PC and Monitor:
Turn on Power Management. Using the power management features on your PC is one of the easiest and cheapest things you can do to save energy. Power management features in the Windows Vista are on by default and will automatically put the PC to sleep after 60 minutes of idle time, and the monitor will turn off automatically after 20 minutes. You can always change the settings to be more aggressive and save even more. For example, my desktop PC at home (which is primarily used as a Media Center PC which I remotely access through an XBOX 360) is set to go to sleep after 10 minutes, and the monitor turns off after 5 minutes.
Disable Screen Savers. It should come as no surprise that screen savers don’t save energy, and in some cases use more energy than when you are using the PC yourself. What may be less obvious is that using a screen saver instead of powering down the display may shorten the life of an LCD monitor due to the fluorescent tube becoming progressively dimmer as it is used. So say goodbye to those flying toasters and use display blanking instead (accessible via the power management control panel interface). If you use the screen saver to automatically lock your PC if it is left unattended for a while, I recommend using the blank screen saver (which doesn’t consume additional energy), and setting the monitor blanking timeout to be slightly shorter than the screen saver timeout. This way, if your monitor blanks while you are sitting at the machine, you can move your mouse to bring the display back up and not have to enter your password each time.
Unplug unused equipment when not in use (monitor, PC, wireless phones, printer, etc.). Many of your older electronic products that are plugged into the wall can still draw significant amounts of energy when they aren’t even being used. If an external power supply is warm, then it’s consuming at least some energy. However, most new devices are actually very energy efficient and will only draw a couple of watts or less while they are on standby, including PCs and monitors. Unless you have a watt meter and are able to measure individual devices, having them on a power strip and turning it off when not in use might make a noticeable difference on your energy bill, particularly if your devices are more than a couple of years old. You can buy smart power strips that automatically cut power to your other devices when the PC goes into sleep mode. The power strip provides the few watts the PC needs while in sleep, but can cut power to everything else until the PC is turned on.
3. Conscientiously dispose of your old or unwanted PC and Monitors
Recycle or Donate old PCs and Monitors: There are a number of great ways to handle the disposal of old PCs and monitors. While recycling through a reputable third party PC recycling vendor or directly through a PC/Monitor manufacturer is one good option, another option is to donate them to a technology refurbisher. Refurbishment reduces computer waste and provides affordable technology to millions of people. Today, about 28 million computers are refurbished and resold or freely distributed. Unfortunately, while 80 percent of the world's population is still without access to computers and the Internet, tens of millions of still-usable computers are discarded each year by businesses, individuals and organizations, mostly in the developed world. The reuse of computers offers tremendous promise for increasing access to information, especially for people underserved by technology. In addition, this helps ensure that older PCs don’t end up in landfills and are put to good use. To donate your old PC and to find a Microsoft Authorized Refurbisher near you, visit: http://www.techsoup.org/mar/marList.aspx
Well that’s a lot of advice and I hope you’re not too overwhelmed by it. Becoming energy efficient and environmentally sustainable is a journey and doesn’t have to be an all or nothing proposition. Start with the low hanging fruit first (e.g. enabling power management and buying Energy Star and EPEAT rated devices) and you can worry about fine tuning later on down the road. In a future post I’ll be writing about some of the experiences I have had with the energy consumed by other consumer electronics, such as TVs and Game Consoles.