Wanted: Green Tech That Saves Serious Green

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Fifty cents. That's how much U.S. businesses could save by shutting down all their PCs at night and on weekends, according to a study released last month (download file) by the Alliance to Save Energy. Of course, that's not how the report headlined it. The alliance's number was US$2.8 billion per year.

That's the sort of thing that gives "green IT" a bad name.

See, that $2.8 billion is how much the group estimates would be saved in energy costs each year by shutting down 108 million PCs when they're not being used. Those numbers may be accurate, but do the math: That's $26 per PC per year, or 50 cents a week.

In other words, this energy savings is trivial. It's a rounding error. It's less than the cost of two minutes of a typical employee's time each week, well under 30 seconds per day. That means it really is cheaper to leave a Windows PC on all night than to spend the few seconds to press Ctrl-Alt-Del and type in a password -- never mind the several minutes for the PC to go from cold start to usability.

And that doesn't begin to factor in the cost of blocking the IT department's after-hours remote maintenance and patches.

Is it good to save that little bit of electricity? Sure. But for most companies, it's not nearly enough to justify the cost and effort. And trumpeting that $2.8 billion number as if it's meaningful is, well, an embarrassment.

Look, technology does burn a lot of electricity. But let's stop pretending that if corporate IT tweaks this or adjusts that, we've got a green-IT solution. We're slapping Band-Aids on problems created by vendors that don't make energy efficiency a priority.

And that doesn't just mean using fancy new technologies such as digital paper for displays or self-throttling CPUs.

Consider power adapters, those ubiquitous bricks and wall warts that turn wall current into usable power for laptops, mobile phones and other battery-operated devices. They're always on, even when they're not actually delivering power. Today, the only way to shut most of them down is to unplug them -- and what user is likely to do that?

Why do vendors use such power-hungry adapters? Because they're cheap and simple.

The infuriating thing is, it wouldn't take a lot of expensive smart circuitry to make those adapters much less wasteful. Just adding an extra pair of wires and a switch to the device end of the power cable would do it. Then for the 98% of the time that, say, a phone isn't charging, the adapter could stop drawing juice.

Faster PC boots would help, too. That's an operating system problem, and one that should be Microsoft's greatest shame. A locked-down Windows PC should be able to boot in seconds -- if there's nothing new for the operating system to discover, why should initialization take so long? A tuned version of Linux can come up in seconds on a PC that takes minutes to load Windows. Why must Windows waste power and murder user productivity at the same time?

Heck, even a PC sleep mode that actually works would encourage users to save power. Trouble is, most users have had terrible experiences with PCs that can't wake up from sleep mode. Until PC vendors demonstrate a sleep mode that works really well, users won't trust it.

How much electricity and money would we save if hardware and software vendors took green IT seriously, even with small measures such as these? That's hard to calculate.

But that's the kind of green IT that would save energy -- and without costing us more than it's worth.

Frank Hayes is Computerworld's senior news columnist. Contact him at frank_hayes@computerworld.com.

This story, "Wanted: Green Tech That Saves Serious Green" was originally published by Computerworld.

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