Folks have finally awakened to the reality of climate change. While many are worried that it all will still be “too little, too late”, there is exciting momentum building in all sorts of areas–from renewable energy technologies (from big to small, my favorite one right now a “microwind energy generator”), to a renewed examination of food production and consumption, resource conservation in buildings, transportation options and much, much more.

All this is enough to make an “ecogeek” like myself giddy.

What is really exciting in this latest wave of concern and action is that there is a tangible connection between the local and global aspects of the decisions we make. I’ve been inspired by activists in cities and countries that are not only making commitments to change, but actually making progress.

A significant source of energy consumption–and one that individuals, nonprofits and businesses can directly impact–is computer usage. If you assume that the typical desktop computer draws about 100 watts of power and you run that every day (even leaving the computer in “idle” mode at night and on the weekends uses power), the environmental and financial costs of an individual computer quickly adds up–to the tune of $100 a year or more, and that doesn’t include a monitor, printer or other peripherals, or any of the other computers in a typical nonprofit office. As energy costs rise, Google projects that it will soon cost more to power a computer for four years than it does to buy a new one.

Computer usage in the broadest terms includes the basics: things like desktops with monitors, keyboards and mice, laptops, printers, copiers, etc. It includes network switches, routers, modems and wiring. And, importantly, it includes servers–servers in the office that share files and data, servers managed by others that host websites, databases, web-based applications, email and more.

Minimize Energy Consumption, Maximize Performance

Central to the quest to “green” our information technology is finding the balance between low energy use and high performance. Better, probably, to say “appropriate” performance. A server, or a workstation for someone crunching a lot of data or doing a lot of graphical work–these should be machines up to the task. A workstation for someone doing basic office work like email, web browsing, word processing etc. doesn’t have to be a top of the line system. The good news is that there are many ways to squeeze both noticeable energy savings and performance out of both types of systems.

Paying Attention to the Complete Lifecycle of your Computers

As we consider minimizing energy consumption and the environmental impact of our computer systems, we need to look “cradle to grave”. How, and with what materials, are computers constructed? How do we use the computers to minimize energy consumption and maximize longevity? And, when the time comes, how do we appropriately “dispose” (reuse/recycle) of our computer systems?

Help Making Sense of it All

Fortunately, there are emerging systems to guide us through purchasing decisions that take the environmental “footprint” of computer systems into account. The “Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool”, or EPEAT, is certainly the easiest and most comprehensive tool that takes into account the environmental impacts of the manufacturing, use and disposal of computer systems.

Energy Star, a joint program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy, offers verification of Energy Star qualified office technology. Energy Star certification covers more products than EPEAT but only looks at the energy consumption of technology during its “useful life” and does not evaluate the environmental and energy consumption issues during manufacturing or disposal. The Energy Star standards for computers were revised in July of 2007 (now version 4.0). EPEAT is requiring Energy Star 4.0 compliance for any products certified after July 20, 2007, but will keep products that met Energy Star 3.0 certification prior to July 20, 2007 in their database until January of 2008, after which time only Energy Star 4.0 certified systems will be included in the EPEAT database.

In Europe, the Eco-label program certifies a variety of products including computer equipment. The Eco-label program essentially merges the energy savings focus of Energy Star with the lifecycle analysis of EPEAT in one program.


How a computer is constructed and what pieces go into the system are critical. EPEAT looks at the reduction and/or elimination of environmentally sensitive materials such as cadmium, lead, mercury, PVC, and other chemicals and metals. It also rates computers on the percentage of post-consumer recycled plastics as well as bio-based plastic materials used in the construction of computer components and how computers are packaged for delivery/sale (minimization of packaging and use of recycled content and ease of recycling packaging materials). EPEAT also rates the simplicity of upgrading and/or replacing components to help extend the useful life of computer systems.


How long can a working computer remain useful? Once it eventually needs replacing, how easily can it be recycled? In addition to criteria governing how easy it is to upgrade and repair a system, computers certified under EPEAT must have the option for an additional three-year warranty or service agreement, meaning that the possible life span of an EPEAT certified computer needs to be at least six years. Once a computer has reached its useful end of life, EPEAT ranks systems on how easy it is to disassemble the computer and what percentage of the materials are reusable or recyclable.

If a computer can still be useful to someone, maybe just not your organization, reuse is the first course of action. TechSoup maintains a list of organizations that accept computer donations, and is a good first place to look. If the computer cannot be reused, recycle the system. Many cities and counties are beginning to offer residential curbside electronics recycling and electronics recycling companies will often pick up equipment for recycling if there is sufficient volume. Computer vendors like Dell, Lenovo, HP, Apple and others offer mail back programs for unwanted equipment. Office Depot recently launched a national program that, for between $5 and $15 you can purchase shipping boxes of various sizes and Office Depot will recycle all the equipment that fits in the box. Other companies have sprung up that will also pay you for your old equipment such as O2 and Gazelle.

Use it, Don’t Abuse It

Sure, buying an EPEAT Gold or Energy Star 4.0 certified computer will take you far towards minimizing the environmental footprint of that computer system. How we use our computers, though, is also critical in addressing the energy consumption issue.

The majority of energy consumed by our computers happens when they are idling. Estimates suggest that up to 85% of the energy used up by computers occurs when we are away from the machine–at lunch, at meetings or simply not at the office. There are two simple solutions to dealing with this:

1. Turn it off!

For a while, a great debate waged as to the benefits of turning a computer off when leaving work at night as opposed to leaving it on. Would turning it off wear out the moving parts? At some point in the past, the answer probably was “yes” or at least “maybe.” But advances in drive technology and the reduction of physically moving mechanical parts in computers has disposed of this argument. If this is still your concern, lay it to rest and shut down your computer before you leave.

A second reason why computers are often left on at night is to allow for scheduled data backups or other maintenance. If this is how your systems run now, consider changing how your data is backed up. For offices with multiple computers, central data storage (servers, shared drives) is a better solution for back up and file storage in general. Let these machines handle your data and back up requirements so other systems can be turned off.

For offices with one to three machines that do not need to share data in this way, individual backups can be done to CD, DVD, external drives or online services. These backups can often be set up to be done incrementally so, after a baseline backup is done, only files that have changed are backed up each time. In the case of many online backups, these backups are often done throughout the day, meaning that the file you created 15 minutes ago is probably already backed up. If backing up to CD, DVD or other local storage, schedule automatic backups for over a lunch hour or during routinely scheduled staff meetings.

In the initial example of a computer using 100 watts of power running 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, energy consumption would cost approximately $100 a year. Running the same computer only 8 hours a day drops the cost by two thirds to approximately $33 a year–and the cost would drop even more if the computer is off for entire weekends as well. Turning off any technology when it isn’t in use is the single easiest thing any individual or organization can do to conserve the energy used by these machines.

2. Give it a Rest!

Turning off your computer at night, over the weekend or during times when you will be away from it for an hour or more can have a huge impact on energy consumption. When turning your computer off isn’t an option, make sure it is at least taking advantage of whatever “sleep mode” functionality it has. Putting a computer into sleep mode basically shuts or slows down computer components like the monitor and hard drive, helping the computer use less power. To check your computer’s available power management settings, check the following:

On a Macintosh:

From any application select the Apple menu
Select “System Preferences…” (OS X) or “Control Panels” (OS 9) and then click on “Energy Saver”

On a Windows-based computer:

Point your cursor at the desktop background and right-click
Choose “Properties” from the pop up menu
Go to the “Screen Saver” page; in the lower right-hand corner near the ENERGY STAR® logo click the “Settings” or “Power” button. This brings up another dialog box where you choose power management settings.

From these screens, you can set when the monitor is turned off, when the hard drive spins down and when the computer will go in to “system standby” or “sleep mode”. Generally, turning an unused computer monitor or hard drive off after 10 or 15 minutes and sending a computer into standby or sleep mode after 30 minutes is a reasonable rule of thumb. These settings will minimize power use but also make it so your computer will wake up quickly when you return from that meeting or meal. These and other recommendations regarding turning off and using standby settings can be found in the Green Computing Guide from the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Other Usage Recommendations/Considerations

In addition to buying EPEAT and Energy Star certified computers, turning them off when not in use and taking advantage of power-saving features at other times, other basic practices can further decrease the environmental and financial costs of your computer systems:

Printers, scanners, copiers and other peripherals? Unless there are important reasons to leave these on (we’ve had experience with some color printers, for example, that consume a lot of ink during start up), turn them off at the end of the day and leave them off until you need them. Otherwise, if they have a low-power mode, make sure it is enabled.
When making purchasing decisions, also consider how “powerful” a computer you need now and for the next several years. And don’t only look at the one computer that needs to be replaced. Would replacing a different computer in the office with a new machine and using that hand-me-down at the first location be possible?
Could a laptop be a replacement for an aging destkop? Laptops by their very nature consume far less power than a desktop and offer other benefits to the user and organization.
Wired vs. wireless? In new office space it is tempting to consider a completely wireless solution to connect computers to office networks and the internet. Wireless requires less material (far less copper or fiber since there is little network cabling needed) and will potentially use less power although wireless routers and access points could add up to the same amount of power used as network switches. The performance trade-offs, however, between wireless and wired could easily tip the balance in favor of building out a wired network. The more users on a wireless network, the slower it is likely to be.

Servers, Websites and More

Many nonprofit offices have one or more servers managing file sharing, backups, database access, email, website or more. These machines tend to be high on the energy consumption scale, employing multiple hard drives, power supplies, fans and more. As the energy efficiency of individual computer components continues to improve, the energy costs of these computers will probably go down, although this will likely be overshadowed by rising energy prices.

Except for an organization that is managing its email, website and other systems on in-house servers, every nonprofit is using a hosted server for one or more critical services–web, email, database, etc. When the energy and support costs are factored in, maintaining in-house servers can easily be a big cost center for an organization although these costs are certainly justified for many groups. One way to quickly size up the energy costs of your servers or any equipment is to plug in a nifty product called a Kill-a-Watt energy monitoring device that will tell you exactly how much electricity a particular electronic gadget uses and how much it costs to run that gadget each year. Add up all those costs and moving email, web hosting, backup and other services to an outside provider could make financial and organizational sense.

But does it make sense from an energy conservation standpoint? Data centers–huge facilities with hundreds or thousands of servers, power supplies, back up power supplies and more–use enormous amounts of energy. While improvements in power management and the energy conservation of server components will continue to improve, there is a reason companies like Google, Microsoft and Yahoo are building new data centers in places like Eastern Oregon and Washington that offer access to relatively reliable hydro-power (supplemented by growing wind farms). Still, recent reports, like one from IT analyst firm IDC, suggests that at least for larger organizations, using outsourced, data center-based services makes financial and environmental sense. And, with energy costs going up, it makes financial sense for the companies to get every ounce of efficiency from their data centers.

Green Data Centers?

While there are currently no EPEAT or Energy Star ratings for hosting services and data centers, many green or at least “greenish” services exist. Hosting companies and data centers are taking on initiatives to improve the efficiency of cooling systems and manage the power consumption of servers, tapping directly into renewable power systems, buying green energy credits from utilities or purchasing “carbon offset credits” to mitigate their environmental impact.

If your server requirements are such that a green data center or hosting company isn’t an option, purchasing green energy or carbon offset credits for your organization/office is another option. While going with a company that purchases these credits or buying your own through your utility or a third-party isn’t the same as actually using green energy to power your computer systems, it is the next best thing.

Go Forth and Conserve

The best and easiest strategies to reducing the environmental footprint of your computer systems are to:

purchase EPEAT Gold certified computers and Energy Star 4.0 certified peripherals that are appropriate to your organization’s needs,
turn them off when not in use, and
set up energy conserving power management settings when the machines are idling.
With continued advances in energy conservation technologies for computer systems, newer desktops, laptops and peripherals will certainly consume less power than current models. Of course, this doesn’t mean you should run out and replace perfectly good systems now. Taking in to account manufacturing and disposal issues, it is probably better to adjust how and when existing computers are used rather than simply upgrading. So when the time comes, feel good about selecting a new system that meets EPEAT and Energy Star certification.

Consider the impact of your servers and hosting environment as well. Just because they are “somewhere else” doesn’t mean they don’t need to be an important part of your energy conservation.

The research group Gartner Inc. recently released a report which put “Green IT [at the top of] the list of strategic technologies that companies should consider in their planning processes” for 2008. This is just as true for nonprofit organizations. As we look to maintain or increase our effectiveness and efficiency, we need to be making decisions with long-term impact. Integrating and implementing a green IT strategy is an easy way we can all influence the financial health of our organizations and, more importantly, the ecological health of our communities and the world.

Green IT: Minimizing the Environmental Footprint of Your Technology Systems
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