13 Jan 2010   |   News

The greening of IT

Computers have the potential to save energy - by consuming less themselves and optimising use elsewhere, but there are obstacles in the way.

Computers "are clearly a part of how we address issues including energy use and climate change", says Andrew Herbert, Managing Director, Microsoft Research Cambridge

Computers may throw out waste heat when operating and eat up electricity on standby, but they can also help to save, rather than just consuming, energy. They can be used to monitor and manage heating and cooling systems in buildings, improve the energy efficiency of cars, optimise processes in factories. Computers will also be a central element of smart electricity systems that precisely monitor loading and allow renewable energy to be fed into the grid.

With the marriage of low-cost sensors to wireless technology to monitor conditions and adjust thermostats and other settings remotely, the possibilities are almost limitless. So why is this potential yet to become reality?

That was the question posed in a recent seminar in Brussels which brought together computer scientists, economists, industry executives and European Union officials organised by Science|Business, with the support of Microsoft Research and Scottish Enterprise.

The answers that emerged include a lack of incentives for people to adopt energy-saving computer technologies, a series of financial obstacles to their deployment and a mindset of narrow thinking that prevents people from seeing the bigger picture. Then there’s the way computers themselves are made and used, with many simply left on all day and all night, whether needed or not.

The issue is fundamental. Computing pervades our everyday lives, not just in the workplace, but also in our cars, kitchens and living rooms. Computers now outnumber people, and are clearly a part of how we address issues including energy use and climate change, said Andrew Herbert, managing director of Microsoft Research Cambridge, UK.

Information and communication technologies (ICT) can help both in building understanding of these issues and in managing them. To achieve that potential, a cross-disciplinary approach, reliable information, and financial and regulatory incentives are needed. In addition, the factors that drive human behaviour must be borne in mind. Once these ingredients are in place, a greener, more energy-efficient ICT - and economy - is possible.

While computers are at present energy hogs, the EU estimates that in the longer run they have the potential to save five times as much carbon dioxide as they generate.

So how to get that saving? The seminar highlighted several obstacles.

Issue 1: ‘Silo’ thinking

One absolute must, according to participants in the seminar, is to bring different disciplines together. Just as the challenges themselves embrace several areas, so must the answers.

The computer scientists have to work with economists, psychologists and other experts. There also needs to be cooperation and communication between industry, academia, policymakers and consumers.

Take one example: How do you measure energy efficiency? Unlike white goods such as cookers and fridges, a consistent method for assessing energy efficiency of computers doesn’t exist today, said Colette Maloney, head of the European Commission’s ICT for Sustainable Growth unit. The EU has now launched an initiative bringing ICT companies and sector associations together to discuss how the energy efficiency of their products is measured.

Issue 2: Better models

One way in which politicians can be helped to make sensible policy and companies can make informed investment decisions, is through good and consistent predictive modelling.

Computers are of course, at the heart of such models, and it is their advancing complexity that has made it possible to attempt integrated global models of climate change.

One component of such models – the state of the world’s forests - can be of critical importance to countries such as Russia or Finland where forestry plays an important role in the economy, according to Microsoft’s Herbert. Meanwhile, forest fires in California, Australia, Spain and Greece, are thought to be caused by climate change and universities in Greece are working on models for predicting when and where fires may happen, allowing time for pre-emptive work by firefighters.

Issue 3: Finance

The European Investment Bank’s Juan Alario described financing as an, “enabling instrument”. Alario warned, though, that funding must be well-targeted and used effectively. To achieve this, information is key, he said. He criticised the use of some subsidies, saying they were wasted because they were being used on projects that did not need such support to be profitable.

The EIB has identified cities as a major source of energy saving and is teaming up with local authorities in Barcelona and elsewhere, to develop large-scale energy saving programmes.

The European Union’s plan to address the economic crisis has identified the auto industry, construction and manufacturing, as three sectors that deserve research support to improve energy efficiency. A total of €3.2 billion is being invested through public-private partnerships.

“It is clear that ICT is an enabling technology in all three areas,” said Waldemar Kütt, deputy chief of staff to the EU Research Commissioner.

Issue 4: Incentives and convenience

Human behaviour is influenced by convenience. The more convenient an appliance or a technology, the greater the likelihood it will catch on with consumers.

Naoko Tojo, from the International Institute for Industrial Environmental Economics at Sweden’s Lund University, points to the need for more user-friendly interfaces to increase convenience. She thinks this is why the uptake of new technology in her native Japan is often much quicker than in Europe.

It would be heresy to a British tea drinker, but, she says, it is normal in Japan to have a device for making tea that sets the temperature at 70 or 85 degrees, not an unnecessary 100 degrees.

While few consumers care about saving energy per se, they do care about saving money; and they do seek convenience. If technology that enables energy efficiency is to be embraced, then computer science must not lose sight of the human factors.

Issue 5: Turn your computer off

Trying to get people to change their behaviour is not always easy, as Daniel Curtis of Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute knows only too well. He embarked upon a seemingly simple way of saving energy: switching off the university’s desktop computers when they are not in use.

Before this initiative, all the computers were left on 24 hours, enabling programmers to carry out backups, fix bugs or update software. The key to changing this Curtis said was to provide staff with the tools to overcome potential problems. Curtis estimates that the programme will save about 5 gigawatt-hours a year, which depending on electricity prices would be annual savings of around half a million pounds.

Microsoft has several projects that are seeking to reduce the energy use of information technology products. One of them, the Somniloquy Project at Microsoft Research in Cambridge, aims to put idle computers into sleep mode whilst still allowing them to respond to requests to over the network.

Issue 6: Computers everywhere

The issue of whether computer science is itself a net contributor or saver of energy also needs to be considered.

The Wireless World Research Forum forecasts there will be about 1,000 wireless devices per capita by 2017. The sheer volume is an issue for ICT, said Stephen McLaughlin, Dean of Research at the College of Science and Engineering at Edinburgh University. A single bank building in London’s Canary Wharf could have, say, 10 million sensors monitoring everything from the ambient temperature to the smooth operation of the lifts. The question then becomes how to marshal, organise and digest all this information and put it to productive use. The systems are extremely complex, and a holistic view must be taken of how they interact and how they will be used.

You can download the full meeting report on the Science|Business website.

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