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Big future in cutting computers' carbon footprint

Big future in cutting computers' carbon footprint

The PC can cause a lot of greenhouse gas, but it can also be used to alleviate the problem.

A personal computer can generate 225 kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions every year, the equivalent of two round trip Sydney-Canberra flights, by some estimates. There is little doubt that for organisations with thousands of personal computers and big data centres there is a significant carbon footprint from running the computers and cooling the data centre. Exactly how big the footprint is remains unclear.

Analyst Gartner has estimated that about 0.75 per cent of all global carbon dioxide emissions come from computer equipment. As the firm points out, while it isn't a major source of emissions, and computer users aren't the greatest polluters of the planet, it is a significant problem, compounded by the waste that the industry generates, particularly in terms of discarded PCs that end up as landfill.

Rival analyst IDC claims that IT does as much damage to the environment as the airline industry, while the Australian Computer Society says 7.94 million tonnes of Australia's 522.2 million tones of carbon dioxide emissions each year come from the IT industry.

Getting to grips with greenhouse gas emissions can feel a little like sculpting in jelly, but that's just what 700 Australian businesses will have to do in order to comply with the requirement from July next year to report on their carbon emissions under the National Greenhouse and Energy Reporting Act.

Companies will need to register and report if they control facilities that emit 25 kilotonnes of greenhouse gas, produce or consume 100 terajoules of energy, or if their corporate group emits 125 kilotonnes of greenhouse gas or produces or consumes 500 terajoules of energy. Big IT users may find some surprises in terms of the carbon footprint of their apparently benign and clean data centre.

Knowing the size of your carbon footprint is important. Lowering it is more important still.

Richard Harris, a research vice- president with Gartner, believes that while there are technologies aimed at cutting the emissions of computing equipment itself, the greatest environmental leverage from computing will come from application of technology; for example, to streamline supply chains, or reduce air travel by opting for tele- or web-conferencing.

There is some appetite for such applications already; a recent survey of Australian workers by Citrix Online found 36 per cent of respondents had considered using web conferencing to reduce their carbon footprint.

Harris believes IT managers need to try to articulate to the business the opportunities that a company or government organisation has to use technology to reduce its carbon footprint. But he acknowledges that to make much progress the chief executive's support is essential.

Where there is that top level commitment to going green, chief information officers are paying more attention to green technologies. Both the NAB and Goldman Sachs JBWere, for example, have stated their intent to go carbon neutral and their IT leaders, Geoff Wenborn and Richard Tait, have both publicly committed to harnessing more energy-efficient technologies.

There is already a range of tools and techniques to reduce emissions from computing itself, from virtualisation and blade servers to thin clients and liquid cooling systems.

Rimatrix 5, a division of German engineering company Rittal, has developed a liquid cooled server rack which acts as a heat exchange and drives cold air across servers. According to Mark Roberts, Rimatrix product manager, US data centres using the system have reported that reductions in power and cooling costs delivered a payback within 15 months. No systems have been sold in Australia yet, but Roberts says an energy company in Brisbane and an animation business in New Zealand are considering the system.

Even so, Harris believes that "water cooling is probably not much more than a novelty". He says that more important is that employees learn to switch off their computers when not in use (which by some estimates can reduce a computer's annual emissions by almost 20 kilograms), and that companies consolidate their data centres into fewer, larger centres.

"Another thing that will start to happen is there will be a move away from having such power on the desk. There will be more thin clients, which use less energy. The move to more centralised IT and thin clients will make a significant difference," Harris says.

Michael McGrath, managing director of Neoware, the thin computing division of HP, says that where a typical desktop computer might draw 280 watts of power, a thin client requires just 30 watts.

Barclays Bank is currently replacing 10,000 PCs with thin clients around the world and anticipating power savings of $12 million. In addition, McGrath claims the bank expects to reduce its carbon emissions by 15,000 tonnes over the four- to five-year lifespan of the thin client. "Thin clients also cost less to produce, are 40 per cent lighter and last 50 per cent longer, so you reduce production, waste costs and emission costs."

Key points:

• One analyst claims that information technology does as much damage to the environment as the airline industry.

• From July next year, 700 Australian companies will have to report on their carbon emissions.

• But better technology and better use of technology can achieve a lot.

© Fairfax Business Media

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Tags carbon footprintGreen technologycarbon emission

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