Challenge: Computers Use Far Too Much Energy

August 3, 2016 By Carl Weinschenk

computer energy manageThere are two areas of concern for an energy or facility manager overseeing efficiency in a building: Energy consumed by the building itself for HVAC, lighting and other purposes and energy driving the equipment used by occupants.

The most obvious example of the latter category is datacenters, where computing equipment consumes prodigious amounts of energy directly and, indirectly, through the need to keep the devices cool.

Datacenters are simply extreme examples of how much energy computing equipment use, however. The need to reduce computer-related consumption in office buildings is great as well. “Computers and monitors are one of the largest electricity users in offices,” wrote Pierre Delforge, the Director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s High Tech Sector Energy Efficiency, Energy & Transportation program, in response to emailed questions from Energy Manager Today. “Simple steps can reduce their energy use by more than half (compared to the computers being left on all the time which many are in offices).”

It may be that reducing energy use by PCs won’t be a choice. The situation is summed up by the first paragraph of a story at Semiconductor Engineering on a report issued this spring by the Semiconductor Industry Association and the Semiconductor Research Corp.:

The anticipated and growing energy requirements for future computing needs will hit a wall in the next 24 years if the current trajectory is correct. At that point, the world will not produce enough energy for all of the devices that are expected to be drawing power.

The article provides lots of commentary. An important point is that the crisis will hit long before 24 years if usage patterns remain the same and nothing is done to make computing more energy efficient.

The good news is that there are relatively easy gains to be made. Last week, the NRDC released an analysis that claimed fully half the energy used by computers can be saved by use of off-the-shelf technology. The study found that reducing computer and monitor energy use by 30 percent would save 29 billion kilowatts of energy annually and eliminate 20 million metric tons of carbon pollution. Computer performance and user convenience would not be impacted, the study found.

There are two ways to generate this efficiency. The first — the creation of more efficient machines — is beyond the scope of energy managers. The other is taking steps to manage energy use more wisely.

Of course, the greatest influence energy managers will have is in how computer devices are used. Delforge offered steps that immediately can be implemented to reduce energy use in PCs and other computer equipment. They are use screen off and sleep mode; use of advanced computer components that are less energy intensive and use of advanced power configurations. The latter, he pointed out, involves sophisticated computer known-how.

Perhaps the step suggested by Delforge that has the most potential for immediate impact is the use of ENERGY STAR standards. He wrote that all the there is a good deal of data available online. An example of the help available from ENERGY STAR is a how-to on energy management settings on five operating systems (Microsoft Vista, Windows 7, 8 and 10 and Apple’s Mac).

The bottom line is that something has to give – and no doubt will. A lot of research is ongoing on both incremental and dramatic reductions in energy use by computing gear.

One of the most interesting approaches is a biologically-based computer. The Albany Daily Star reports on a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on the a prototype device created at McGill University in Montreal. It uses a biochemical called adenosine triphosphate (ATP) to do the work now done by semiconductors. The story says that the approach – which is a long way from commercialization – would drastically reduce energy use.

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