It’s not easy being green – is the name of a popular TV series here in the UK. It’s also an increasingly popular mantra around these parts. Having just returned from a trip to my local recycling depot, I’m feeling a little ashamed, and before you even think it, no, I didn’t deliberately put my green bottles in the brown bin. Nor is it related to the amount of empty beer cans deposited (I just buy kegs now to save the embarrassment).
No, for this trip I rounded up all of the redundant IT and telephony equipment at Hillside Farm. The depot has recently started to accept all manner of household electrical and IT equipment for reuse/recycling, and it was quite eye-watering to see the amount of ‘stuff’ that was being hurled into a giant 20 ton dumpster. There were the usual toasters, kettles, TVs, VCRs, but also Dell laptops, old broadband routers, modems, you name it, it was in there.
This got me thinking more about the total lifecycle of the gadgets and IT equipment we use. Here at 1E central, we’re very much focussed on energy conservation based around the way that desktops and servers are used. NightWatchman has been merrily turning off PCs for over 8 years now, and saving thousands of tons of CO2 and money into the bargain. NightWatchman Server Edition is tackling the same energy waste in the datacenter.
But just how much energy is used in the manufacture of these devices? And how much is used in the life time use and ultimate disposal?
Health and Safety WARNING:The answers to these questions, and some of the following statistics in this article may make you involuntarily spit coffee/fizzy drink/water over your keyboard. And that keyboard that you merrily bash away at day after day, spilling your sandwich and cookie crumbs between the keys, well, it deserve better..
I asked a few friends if they knew what this meant. There were more blank stares than an America’s Got Talent judging panel..
Embodied energy is quite simply the available energy that was used during the manufacture of a product. Take the ubiquitous car for instance. A car uses far more energy in its lifetime in burning gasoline than was used in its production. As does a light bulb and many other simple-to-make but high energy consuming devices. This was the accepted way of things until not so long ago. So let’s move onto more familiar ground, namely the computer.
The great thing about this type of research is that you can be 90% sure that someone has already done the hard work. You just have to find the report. As a complete aside to all of this, did you know that performing a single Google search produces 7 grams of CO2? Really.
A 2004 report by the good old IEEE stated that a standard desktop computer and 17 inch monitor takes 290kg of fossil fuel to manufacture. You can read the full synopsis here, but in summary, a desktop computer’s total energy use can be broken down into 83% for manufacture and a measly 17% in usage. Why is this? Consider the usual corporate lifecycle of a desktop of around three years. Most of our larger customers certainly seem to work on a three year refresh cycle. So it’s the short lifespan on hi-tech equipment that accounts for this crazy imbalance. I mean my laptop is much more efficient in energy use than my TV, but chances are that my TV will be around for a few years longer (sadly) than my cheapo disposable laptop.
That’s not all..
So it takes 12kg of fuel to make 1kg of computer. That in itself I found quite shocking, given that fuel is a finite resource, and some people seem to change computers more often than their underwear these days.
How about this little nugget then. It takes 800kg of fuel to produce 1kg of memory chips. So you can immediately see that although we don’t actually need 1kg of memory chips in a PC (no, not even for gaming), the manufacturing energy requirement of all of the various chips in a computer accounts for a huge proportion of its lifetime energy usage.
Or put it another way – the energy required to manufacture the 2Gigabytes of RAM in the laptop on which I am now typing would be enough to power it for 1,000 days. Non stop.
It’s not just energy that is required in the manufacturing process of course. I know that chip manufacture required a fair amount of water, but what I didn’t realise is that the stuff that comes out of the tap for you and I to drink is not pure enough. Oh no. It has to be what is known as Ultra Pure Water (UPW), which in itself requires all kinds of purification and filtration in order to meet the strict requirements of semiconductor manufacture.
The danger is that any energy savings that we achieve by using products such as NightWatchman will be quickly negated by the enormous carbon footprint both pre and post use.
Turning for a moment to the home market, it looks like things here are really careering down a hill in an extremely out of control manner.
According to a report by the UK Energy Saving Trust, by 2010 (i.e. now) the Consumer Electronics sector will be the biggest single user of domestic electricity, overtaking the traditionally high consuming sectors of cold appliances and lighting. If that doesn’t widen your eyes a little, it also states that by 2020, entertainment, computers and gadgets will account for an extraordinary 45 per cent of electricity used in the home.
To put that in tangible terms, it means that here in the UK we will need 14 power stations just to power all our gadgets.
And now for some good news! Finally..
Now I feel like I need to introduce a little light into this article before you all rush out into the street and start an IPhone bonfire. It’s not all bad.
Some of the gadgets and equipment that we are talking about bring enormous benefits to the world. Think of the amazing computer controlled medical gadgetry that is now available, we have robot surgeons, tiny defibrillators that can be carried anywhere ( I saw one being used successfully on a plane at 30,000ft) , and I am also currently drinking coffee from a tiny machine that sits on my worktop and spits out the most beautiful brew at the touch of a button.
In fact the people at Smart2020 released a report that states that although energy use and therefore CO2 emissions are on the increase, the advent of smart grids, smart building controls and smart cars will achieve savings in the region of 7-8 Gigatons (that’s a lot btw in case you were wondering). Other resources can be conserved too. I wonder how many trees the Kindle has saved from the chainsaw?
The report concludes: "The scale of emission reductions that could be enabled by the smart integration of ICT into new ways of operating living, working, learning and travelling, makes the sector a key player in the fight against climate change, despite its own growing footprint."
What can we do?
We as ICT users need to monitor energy consumption and emissions in real time, so that we can to optimise our equipment for energy efficiency. Solutions like our own NightWatchman have been doing this for years.
Also we can look more closely at the lifecycle of our equipment. The standard three year cycle of corporate desktop computers is largely to blame for the high overall energy cost. I a PC were in use for another 5 years then the energy used in the manufacture would be more justifiable . So why not see if there is a scheme that will take on these redundant PCs and maybe hand them down to schools or other organizations that do not require such cutting edge specifications? Remember, recycling is always better than disposal.
At home, perhaps we can slow down a little and hang on to our latest phone a bit longer, or maybe you could live without that 50inch TV, and go for a walk instead? Just a thought..
Some further reading - Gadgets and Gigawatts - Policies for Energy Efficient Electronics