Managing it - The heat is on as PC makers compete with each other to meet new energy efficiency standards.
It is going home time. The photocopier and coffee machine have been switched off; the lights turned out. Environmental considerations apart, wasted energy costs money - and these are cost-conscious times. Yet in almost half of all computer-using companies, the deserted office is still filled with the hum of PCs. Sound familiar?
PCs consume a surprising amount of electricity - the typical office desktop now burns at least 150 watts per hour. Bigger, more powerful ones may consume double this. Power usage has steadily increased: as the capabilities of PCs have evolved, their electricity consumption has grown. Nowadays screens are bigger, they have colour monitors, larger hard disks and more powerful processors - today's 486 microprocessors consume at least nine times as much power as the relatively primitive 8088 chip inside the first IBM PC. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, computer systems already account for 5% of US commercial sector electricity consumption, a figure it expects will double by the year 2000. Nor does the real problem lie with large computer installations - a full three-quarters of consumption comes from ordinary office PCs and printers. Left on all the time, the typical PC directly adds over 1,300 kilowatt-hours (kWh) worth of power consumption to a business's annual electricity bill each year - over £100, depending on tariff. Multiply that by 20 or so, and PC power consumption starts to become a significant item of office administration costs. Those 20 or so PCs are the equivalent of a couple of two-kilowatt (kW) electric fires.
So what can be done? There is scope in virtually every office. Although it is not good practice to switch PCs on and off all day, (the initial voltage surge each time ultimately wears components out), switching off at night cuts annual consumption substantially - that 1,300 kWh drops to nearer 500 kWh, depending on office hours. And why leave them on overnight at all? It is worth investigating whether the reasons for doing this are actually good ones: some users leave PCs on to save reloading their applications each morning; others because they are part of a network, and they worry about the networking software crashing if a machine is switched off. In either case, there is nothing to prevent you switching off the monitor (the screen), even if the computer itself has to stay on. Monitors account for around half a PC's consumption, so switching them off, but leaving the computer on, still produces a worthwhile saving.
Even so, PCs are still gluttons for electricity while in use - whether just in office hours or through applications that genuinely do require them to be left on for extended periods. Screen savers - utility programs to prevent screens 'burning in' a particular image - are another option. Many users of the Microsoft Windows system, for instance, are not aware that it includes a built-in screen saver that blanks the screen entirely after a given number of minutes have elapsed with no keyboard activity. This cuts monitor power consumption by around 20%.
Newer monitors that dramatically improve on this are starting to find their way into the marketplace, according to Bob Raikes, managing director of Eizo (UK) Ltd, a subsidiary of the Japanese monitor manufacturer. The company specialises in the large, high-definition monitors particularly popular with users of desktop publishing and computer-aided design software - precisely those monitors with the greatest power consumption. A major player in the Scandinavian market, the company has been one of the first to respond to an energy efficiency standard laid down by Swedish standards authority Nutek. The company's new range of monitors initiates two levels of power saving. The first switches the cathode ray tube into standby mode, resulting in power consumption being cut to around 12% of normal, says Raikes.
After a further interval, the tube is switched off completely, with only the monitor's microprocessor remaining switched on - power consumption then drops to 7%.
So is it worth throwing monitors out and replacing them with energy-efficient ones? No, admits Raikes. However, he emphasises that the option should certainly be considered when upgrading displays for other reasons, or when buying new systems. At the moment energy-efficient monitors such as Eizo's are clustered at the top end of the market. This means that users looking for energy efficiency, but happy with a standard performance in every other respect, will have to pay a premium.
This situation is changing fast as, alongside the Swedish Nutek initiative, there is a meatier US one, according to Craig Barrett, executive vice-president and chief operating officer at US semiconductor giant Intel, whose microprocessors lie at the heart of most PCs. The US government's Energy Star programme, which reflects the Clinton administration's more environmentally-minded approach, imposes a standard of energy efficiency on the PC industry, although Barrett is careful to point out that compliance is 'voluntary'.
Nevertheless, the standard now has teeth since, from this month, the US government itself - one of the biggest single purchasers of PCs in the world - will refuse to buy PCs which do not comply with the standard.
Essentially, says Barrett, Energy Star calls for PCs to be capable of recognising that they are not in active use, and be able to switch themselves to a 'sleep' mode in which they should use no more than 30 watts - a cut in power consumption of as much as 90%. To achieve this, Intel's new SL range of 486 microprocessors recognises that keyboard activity has stopped, and so initiates a system closedown, switching off disk drives, monitors, modems, etc until the user's return. The trick lies in 'freezing' the system in mid-application, so that the user's document, spreadsheet, or whatever, remains unaffected.
Barrett's unabashed approval of both energy-saving in general and the Energy Star standard in particular reflects how neatly the standard fits into Intel's own plans. Intel's monopoly has come under threat from industry upstarts such as AMD and Cyrix. The Energy Star initiative has sharply upped the investment ante, forcing the competition to spend a lot of money to catch up - and fast. The Energy Star initiative was announced in April, with compliance required (at least for US government purchases) within four months.
This was not a problem - at least not for Intel. Quite apart from its vast financial resources, the energy-saving technology it needs to comply with the standard has simply been borrowed from the device it already builds into its chips to extend the battery life of notebook computers. The fact that Intel is making these energy-efficient chips available to computer manufacturers at no extra charge (and 'encouraging' them to follow through by making no extra charge to end users) just piles on the agony for the competition. No wonder, then, that Barrett cheerfully acknowledges the role Energy Star has played in helping the firm distance itself from its rivals.
Yet if Intel has had it relatively easy, PC manufacturers certainly have not. They have been falling over each other to develop and launch Energy Star-compliant PCs. The pressure has been intense, says Roger Stone, European group marketing manager at Dell. The standard has forced the company to redesign its PC circuit boards and interfaces to work with Intel's new processors. For example, extra command paths need to be built in to power the disk drive down when the microprocessor calls for it to be switched off. Nevertheless, Stone predicts that Energy Star-compliant Dell systems will be selling in the UK in the next month or so. Compaq, Hewlett-Packard and others have announced that they, too, are on the verge of having systems ready for the autumn - and at no price premium. It seems that, environmentally-minded or not, PC buyers will soon be going green.