A cool idea: turn off unused computers, save power

There are millions of air conditioners cooling empty rooms and needlessly burning energy in the sweltering heat that’s gripped a good portion of Canada this summer. Those AC units are what most people automatically think of when told to conserve power, but millions of continuously running computer monitors, desktops and notebooks are also drawing precious kilowatt-hours of electricity throughout the day and night.

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It’s not so much the general running of high-tech equipment, but rather the wasted use that’s the big problem. Leaving computer systems and equipment turned on when they’re not in use is as wasteful as running an air conditioner in an empty room.

BC Hydro estimates $30-million worth of electricity a year could be saved in that province alone if businesses and home users were to simply apply commonly available power-saving tools to their computers, and turn them off at night.

“Some companies could achieve tremendous savings,” says David Rogers, a technology and project management specialist working with BC Hydro’s Power Smart, a group that spreads the word throughout that province about energy conservation. He explains that a single organization with 10,000 computers that uses simple power-conservation techniques can save itself a quarter of a million dollars each year in electricity costs.

Consider the windfall that might be gained across a metropolis such as Vancouver, Montreal or Toronto. He conservatively estimates there may be as many as 1.5 million desktop, notebook/laptop computers in use throughout the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).

“If most computers in the workplace in Toronto were set [to use built-in] power management features that simply switch cathode ray tube (CRT) monitors off only upon inactivity, it could instantaneously reduce electrical demand by as much as 25 million watts,” says Mr. Rogers, adding that the saved energy would be enough to power 50,000 (5,000 BTU) room air-conditioner units during a heat wave.

After work hours, the electrical savings achieved through efficient computer energy management could be even greater – as much as 75 million watts, enough energy to run about 150,000 one-room air conditioners.

In calculating these figures, Mr. Rogers applied a BC Hydro estimate that suggests an average CRT monitor consumes about 70 watts while a desktop/notebook computer’s central processor unit (CPU) uses approximately 50 watts.

“During the work day, I assumed that 30 per cent of computer monitors could be switched off if power management options were used on CRT monitors alone,” he says. “To be conservative, I said that each monitor which is turned off saves 50 watts rather than 70 watts.

“Then at night I assumed all computers would be switched off,” he continues. “BC Hydro has found that, on average, about 40 per cent of computers are left on at night after work hours.”

So, in this scenario, the total power for each computer CPU is 50 watts and each CRT screen is 70 watts, totalling 120 watts. Computer energy management software used after work hours on an assumed 1.5 million computers throughout the greater Toronto area should have the following results: 1,500,000 times 120 watts, times 40 per cent, equals 72 million watts worth of electrical power saved – enough to run about 140,000 air conditioners.

As mentioned, eliminating a large degree of waste in desktop and notebook computing equipment could be as easy as using the power-saving features of operating systems such as Windows – there’s no extra investment required, people just have to turn the feature on.

In addition, there are power-saving software “utilities” on the market, including those from a company recommended by Mr. Rogers called Faronics Corp. A soon-to-be-unveiled software utility from Faronics called Power Save, designed for networked environments, lets a company establish thresholds for inactive workstations.

According to product manager Victor Gonzalez, Power Save uses defined electricity-saving rules to set thresholds for users, groups and workstations. By specifying which applications should be available at all times, it’s possible to selectively shutdown only inactive hardware operations while ensuring that processes that need to be running in fact are.

While a distressing number of companies waste energy needlessly through poorly managed computer systems, there are some that have had “green” IT programs for a long time. The Insurance Corporation of British Columbia (ICBC), for one, introduced some years ago a program that minimized the power consumption of CRT monitors in use throughout that organization.

Pierre Pellegrini, manager of problem management, explains he searched for software and found something called Systems Management Services that had a range of power saving options and features.

“After 10 minutes the monitor is turned off, and after a half-hour it went into sleep mode,” Mr. Pellegrini says.

He admits the power-saving initiative was driven mainly by a requirement to reduce screen burn-in – where an image that remained too long on the CRT eventually become “burned” permanently onto the screen itself – but the net result is that the program has saved a lot of power over the years.

Mr. Rogers says companies such as ICBC are the exception when it comes to those who minimize IT equipment power consumption. He has frequently encountered reluctance and even hostility from IT managers with whom he has spoken, who take exception to suggest changes or processes that might interfere with smooth IT operations.

Many don’t like to alter systems and settings, he says, and are reluctant to introduce energy-conserving software because of the potential effects it may have on other programs. Others, as a corporate policy, want computers left on 24 hours a day in order to do software maintenance and upgrades remotely. Mr. Rogers says he knows of one company in B.C. that does this for 30,000 computers, and there are, no doubt, many others across the country that do likewise.

“The message must come from the top of organizations,” he says. “It’s one of these things that’s a ‘no brainer,’ but when it comes to actually doing it, things become rather complicated.”

But it need not be if cooler heads – and a more conservationist view of IT – prevailed.

This article appeared in the Globe and Mail on July 21, 2005.

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