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by Mike Chin

In the computer world, the last couple of years have seen many changes in basic technologies, attitudes, and approaches, as well as new organizations and initiatives aimed at greening information technologies. From the consumer point of view, the most important changes are big improvements in energy efficiency of most computer components, and improved documentation of energy consumption.

But is low power consumption all that's needed for a PC to be green? Well, no, even though most computer product advertising would have you believe it. For example, you cannot ignore simple user factors, such as turning the computer off when it's not in use or using a plug strip to eliminate the phantom loads of many computer products like printers and monitors on standby. The decision to retire an old, less energy-efficient computer and replace it with a newer, faster, more energy-efficient one is not so simple.

The bottom line is that it's impossible to bring a computer's eco-footprint down to zero, which is what green really should mean. We can, however, talk about a greener computer.

Setting the Standard

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began certifying computers with its Energy Star label in 1992. The first phase of computer energy standards— v4.0—went into effect in July 2007, with the second phase becoming effective this past January.

By earlier Energy Star standards, a computer could be a total power hog when in use. As long as the power in standby mode stayed below target, then it would earn the Energy Star label. The v4.0 criteria include energy-efficiency and power management for computers, and, for the first time, define maximum idle power. The v4.0 requirements do not include any new regulations for external monitors. Revisions to the current standards for monitors (last updated in January 2006) and first-of-its-kind criteria for servers are expected this year.

Energy Star-approved computers fall into three different categories based on levels of intended usefulness (see Energy Star v4.0 Categories table on page 103).

All Ratings Are Not Created Equal

A problem with the new criteria is that each category has different power limits, yet there is only one Energy Star mark. A desktop computer in category A that draws less than 50 W at idle receives the same Energy Star label as one in category B that draws up to 95 W at idle. The lack of distinction can mislead consumers into thinking that all Energy Star computers are equal in their energy savings.

The EPA's Energy Star marking methodology also suggests that a category C computer's efficiency should not be compared to that of a category A computer because it offers better computing performance. Following this logic, a desktop computer with 51 W idle in category A will not earn an Energy Star tag, but a model with 95 W idle in category C will.

Careful consumers can, however, do their homework and find the full details of a product on the Energy Star Web site. A list of certified products is updated periodically and available for free download. The key column

Befand Energy CnnsumpNun

The amount of water, fossil fuel, and chemicals that go into the production of the average desktop PC and 17-inch CRT monitor is on par with that used to manufacture some automobiles—roughly 1.8 tons. And since computers are usually replaced fairly often, this compounds the embodied energy and toxics problems.

According to Computers and the Environment (Springer, 2003) also states that a computer's lifetime energy impact is about the same as a refrigerator—with one critical difference. Ninety-six percent of a refrigerator's typical energy consumption occurs over its lifetime from the grid energy it consumes. For a computer, the situation is reversed: 25% occurs during use, while 75% occurs during production, due largely to its much shorter lifespan (typically two to three years).

Major computer manufacturers have announced initiatives to reduce the toxins in their computers, improve the energy efficiency of their products, and develop more effective reclamation programs. Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Sony, and Lenovo promised to phase out the use of PVC and brominated flame retardants by this year, and some have adopted policies that prohibit their waste from being exported to countries with less stringent environmental regulations.

This older desktop computer draws 177 W with an LCD monitor. A CRT monitor could bump power consumption to as high as 300 W.

to examine is "Power in Idle" for each category. Many models will fall into multiple categories—several desktops, for example, appear in all three (A, B, and C). This is because many brands offer various components and accessories for a given model (i.e., from budget CPUs to gamer-ready quad-cores; from the most efficient on-board video cards to power-hungry 3-D monsters). If your goal is to reduce your energy use, look for the lowest idle-power PC that will meet your needs.

Beyond the Star

If you're trying to choose a more eco-friendly computer, then you need to look beyond the Energy Star label and energy consumption. The Green Electronics Council—a nonprofit program of the International Sustainable Development Foundation—created the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT), an online system designed to help consumers compare and select desktop computers, notebooks, and monitors based on their environmental attributes.

EPEAT is a voluntary, self-policing registry that addresses 51 criteria divided into eight categories, including reduction/ elimination of toxic materials, product longevity, end-of-life management, and energy conservation. The registry ranks products as bronze, silver, or gold, according to three tiers of environmental performance.

EPEAT standards were established by consensus among various stakeholders, including representatives from every major PC company. While this voluntary participation helps ensure that EPEAT standards encourage manufacturers to compete on environmental points, a self-certification system relying on the manufacturers' word puts the rankings into question. Even though the council performs random reviews,

Choosing the right power options can significantly reduce the energy your computer consumes when you aren't using it.

there is no verification of each claim. Adding to the ambiguity of the rankings, some of the criteria on the online registration are indicated by check marks only, rather than detailed explanations or numbers.

Easij Waijs Toward Greener CnmpuNng

Greener computing is as much about individual choices and behavior as it is about better products. Simple changes can make a big difference.

Set up your computer to automatically go into standby or sleep mode after being idle for a period of time (such as 10 minutes). This will reduce its power consumption during periods of inactivity to only a few watts.

Turn your computer off if you will not be using it for more than an hour or two. Powering your computer up and down consumes more energy than leaving it on for short periods of time, especially if the computer goes into standby mode. Hibernating and waking your computer can take even less energy (and time) than fully turning it off and on again.

Dial back the brightness. Many screens or monitors are brighter at their default setting than they need to be, so conserve energy by using a lower brightness setting. The power difference can be up to 15 W, even with modern 19-inch LCD monitors (which use much less energy than older CRT monitors).

Tone down the color. Choose dark-colored images and Web pages for your monitor background, screen saver, and Web home page. Your computer uses more energy to produce the light necessary for bright images.

Save energy by "Blackling." If you do a lot of Web searching, set your home page to www.blackle.com. This mostly black search engine obtains the same results as Google, but without all the energy that goes into displaying bright colors.

Kill the phantom loads. Electronic devices can consume energy when they're plugged in but not on. Plug your computer and all your peripherals into an energy-saving power strip that turns off everything with one switch. Keep rarely used peripherals, like scanners, on a separate power strip.

Cut the power. Power strip or not, turn off any peripherals when not in use. Collectively, printers, scanners, monitors, DSL or cable modems, network routers, and other equipment can draw tens of watts when sitting idle.

Kick the gaming habit. Gaming video cards are the worst power hogs among computer components today. Need your gaming fix? Go to Blackle's gaming Web site—www.blacklegames.com— for energy-saving gaming.

Even with its shortcomings, the EPEAT is still the most ambitious resource on the purchasing side of green computing. Since its launch in 2006, the registry has grown to include nearly 1,000 products and has become widely recognized as a tool for institutional purchasing. Although the main database contains products geared for educational, business, and government purposes—often computers with larger hard drives and high-end accessories—there are plans to expand coverage of products for personal and home use.

In the next five years, the EPA estimates that the purchase of EPEAT products will result in the reduction of more than 13 million pounds of hazardous waste and more than 3 million pounds of nonhazardous waste, and save more than 600,000 megawatt-hours of energy.

Energy Star vH.B Categories

Computer Type Category A Category B Category C

Desktop

Must draw less than 4 W in sleep mode and less than 2 W in standby mode

All computers that do not fit into categories B or C. Usually a minimalist single-core processor with 1 gigabyte (GB) or less of memory, suitable for most tasks except large image and video editing, and 3-D gaming. Maximum idle power must be 50 W.

Typically employs a multicore processor, has more than 1 GB of memory, and a more capable video card. Capable of most PC tasks except extreme 3-D gaming. Maximum idle power cannot exceed 65 W.

Typically has a multicore processor, more than 2 GB of memory, a more capable video card, TV tuner and/or video-capture capability with high definition, and multiple hard disk drives. Maximum idle power must be 95 W.

Notebook/Tablet

Must draw less than 1.7 W in sleep mode and less than 1 W in standby mode

Usually a minimalist single-core processor with 128 megabytes (MB) or less of memory, suitable for most tasks except large image or video editing and 3-D gaming. Maximum idle power must be 14 W.

Typically employs a multicore processor, has more than 128 MB of memory, and a more capable video card. Capable of most PC tasks except extreme 3-D gaming. Maximum idle power must be 22 W.

Not Applicable

Ettampte Energy-Efficient Computers

Energy Star

Personal Computer

Type

Categories

Idle Watts

EPEAT Rating

Notes

Dell Optiplex 740

Desktop

A, B

Getting Started With Solar

Getting Started With Solar

Do we really want the one thing that gives us its resources unconditionally to suffer even more than it is suffering now? Nature, is a part of our being from the earliest human days. We respect Nature and it gives us its bounty, but in the recent past greedy money hungry corporations have made us all so destructive, so wasteful.

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