Microsoft could save 45 million tons of CO2 emissions with a few lines of computer code

Computer emissionsHere's a memo to Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer:

It is estimated there are 660 million computers in use worldwide, the majority of which run some iteration of a Microsoft operating system. Generating the electricity needed to power those computers requires hundreds of power plants that produce billions of tons of CO2 emissions. Many of those machines sit idle for 12 to 16 hours per day, burning electricity, but not doing any work, because businesses habitually leave their computers running overnight.

Microsoft has already announced that they will build aggressive, energy-saving technology into their next operating system, Vista. But that's not enough. These days, most computers are networked and can accept software upgrades over the Internet. Also, most machines already possess software that allows them to run more efficiently—to "sleep" in a low-power mode when not in use—but few people enable this feature.

So, Microsoft should issue a software upgrade to every computer running Microsoft Windows worldwide. The upgrade would adjust the machine's energy-saving settings for maximum efficiency. Of course, this upgrade would have to allow critical systems to opt out. Nobody wants air traffic control computers to suddenly go into deep hibernation. But correcting for critical systems should be very simple for a company that churns out millions of lines of code every year.

It's conservative to estimate that 100 million computers worldwide are running Microsoft software, currently running inefficiently, being used in non-critical applications, and ready to accept an upgrade. The savings in energy, outlay and emissions generated by a hypothetical software update would be staggering. Microsoft estimates that it costs $55 to $70 per year for an average business to allow one computer to sit idle. Multiply that times 100 million computers and you realize that the world spends $5 to $7 billion* dollars every year powering inactive computers. Shifting 100 million computers into low-power sleep mode for 12 hours per day could easily cut worldwide C02 production by 45 million tons per year. That is equivalent to wiping away a year's worth of CO2 produced by every household and industry in a country the size of Ireland. Dozens of power plants would no longer be needed.

After the BREAK: The numbers behind the savings.


If Microsoft makes this move, they will set an example for the entire technology industry. And right now the industry needs a good example. Engineers at Google have warned that rising power consumption is their single biggest challenge because computer hardware is requiring more and more power after every generation. And on top of the growing energy demand, Forrester Research predicts that by 2010, the number of PCs in the world will double to 1.3 billion.

And bloated energy use doesn't only apply to high-end servers and desktop computers. The new Playstation 3 gobbles up 380 watts. Its predecessor, the Playstation 2, only used  79 watts, while the original Playstation consumed just 10. The progress in power consumption and computing is simply moving in the wrong direction. 

Growing public concern over the impacts of e-waste and power consumption has led many technology companies to explore ways to green their products. But no other company has an opportunity like Microsoft to make such a direct impact - and practically overnight. Microsoft could seize this chance to lead the pack, and come out on top as the greenest software company in the world—if not the greenest company period.

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Notes: 1.55 lbs/kWh figure based on EPA estimate. 0.1 kw energy saved based my estimate of average energy saved by a computer and monitor in power savings mode. Check out this handy online calculator if you want to plug other numbers into the equation. *figure is corrected from original version, as well as in graphic.


G.E.'s alternative energy research

GE Jerry Beilinson reports for Popular Mechanics on his visit to a General Electric plant in NY state. It's a nice little update on what's going on:

...Nuclear energy is doggedly making an image comeback. And returning to the stage are wind power, solar, conservation, and gasification of coal and other fuels. All of these have been energy darlings during one era or another (gasification goes back to the 18th century, and in its modern form to World War II) and all of them received attention yesterday as a group of reporters and academics were led around the labs in Niskayuna.

It's a bit ironic, but the dirtiest of these technologies could have the biggest impact. Gasification is the process of taking one fuel—coal, often—and turning it into a gas (syngas) that can be burned, plus a bunch of other chemicals. An "integrated gasification combined cycle" (IGCC) system burns the syngas in one turbine, as though it were natural gas, and uses excess heat to boil water for a steam turbine.

While windmills look like glowing harbingers of a clean utopia, a gasification plant looks like a cross between an oil refinery and a coal-burning plant. Oh, well—let's not be squeamish. IGCC plants are very efficient. The other advantage is that you get to capture most of the pollutants that would go up a smokestack if you were simply burning the coal. And it doesn't have to be coal. You can gasify grass clippings, cattle slaughtered after a mad-cow-disease scare, old tires—nearly anything.