(Less) power to the people

Next time you replace your computing device, make energy efficiency a top priority

Justin Sutton-Parker - Computer Science PhD Researcher MBA, Sustainability and Leadership

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Published: 16 September 2020

This Article was Written by: Justin Sutton-Parker - Computer Science PhD Researcher MBA, Sustainability and Leadership

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This article first appeared in our I.T. special issue of of My Green Pod Magazine, distributed with The Guardian on 16 September 2020. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox

In the 1830s, Charles Babbage created the world’s first computer: the Analytical Engine.

The mechanical device included a calculating unit called ‘the mill’, a ‘store’ for pre-processed data and input and output devices called the ‘reader’ and the ‘printer’.

Fundamentally, the construction of modern personal computers has not changed a great deal. The mill has evolved into the central processing unit (CPU), hard drives and memory take care of storage and pre-processing and a combination of keyboards plus screens enable input and output.

There is one thing that has changed dramatically, and that is the quantity of computers being used today – not to mention the fact that they all consume electricity.

Babbage’s Analytical Engine was one computer for a population that was then 1bn. Today it is estimated that there are now 4.6bn active internet users. Considering that each user has to use a computing device to access digital services powered by the internet’s 75m servers, it is fair to suggest that, at very least, there is one computer for every two people in the world.

Practical sustainability

This exponential digitisation, known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, has simply become part of our working lives.

Now, over two-thirds of job roles in the UK’s largest employment sector require the use of a personal computer such as a desktop, thin client, laptop or tablet.

As a result, over 10 million employees spend over five hours each day in front of a computer screen. While this drives productivity, it also creates high levels of energy consumption.

Almost 1% of all global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are created by personal computers; this suggests that, by selecting a more energy-efficient computer, we can all play a part in helping to ensure a sustainable future.

Specialist Computer Centres (SCC) has supplied a vast array of end-user computing such as desktops, thin clients, laptops and tablets to commercial and public sectors for over 45 years. It understands that reducing I.T. energy consumption also reduces greenhouse gas emissions, and focuses on making I.T. work for its customers to improve the way they do business.

This involves supporting long-term profitable business operations; looking ahead, it also includes a focus on the environment. Add the two together and sustainability becomes both feasible and practical.

‘The opportunity, both for the ICT sector as well as the sectors and organisations at the forefront of deploying impactful digital technologies, is enormous. Given the slow pace of progress against the Sustainable Development Goals, it is also non-negotiable. In our Digital with Purpose: Delivering a SMARTer 2030 report, we present very specific commitments for all who are on this journey – the first commitment: to share a common purpose. For us, achieving the SDGs is the central framework to unlock transformative action.’

LUIS Neves
CEO, Global Enabling Sustainability Initiative (GeSI)

Desktops to mobile devices

The human love of convenience is already pushing personal computer choice organically towards devices with a lower impact.

In 2000, the desktop computer was predominantly the device of choice in UK offices, representing over 90% of all commercial devices. Now, some 20 years later, the balance has shifted in favour of mobile devices such as laptops and tablets, which now account for almost half of all business computers.

Desktops continue to have a practical use in some instances, but they consume on average three times as much energy as laptops. At the same time, some laptop models consume in the region of 50% less energy than equivalently specified models.

We still have a way to go if we want to achieve the perfect balance of energy-efficient end-user computing – and we could still be making better choices when refreshing our personal computers.

Slashing emissions by 50%

A recent scientific study from the 10th International Conference on Sustainable Energy Information Technology (SEIT) measured a range of laptops for energy and concomitant GHG emissions in a business environment.

The results indicated that in all instances where a Google Chrome OS operating system was installed, the use-phase energy consumption was up to 57% lower than in comparable laptops.

On further examination, the Google Chrome laptops consumed an average of 12kWh in a full working year. Considering that even an efficient desktop computer will consume in the region of eight times this value, the impact of selecting low-energy devices such as Chromebooks is clear.

‘The research from the International Conference on Sustainable Energy I.T. helps to confirm that sustainability does indeed work hand in hand with lower operating costs and the conservation of energy and other natural resources. Sustainability is now not just a nice to have, but a reality that we all must embrace if we want to thrive on Mother Earth and ensure our beautiful world remains that way for many generations to come.’

MICHAEL WYATT
Head of Google Chrome Enterprise EMEA

When examining tablets that can also operate in the same way as a laptop, the Microsoft Surface Go proved incredibly efficient and achieved similar energy consumption values.

With a detachable keyboard that delivers a user experience similar to that of a classic notebook, the energy and concomitant GHG savings delivered by moving wholesale from legacy notebook devices to the Surface Go would be considerable. As the study notes, GHG emissions could be reduced by over 50%.

Restriction-free device choice

The point here is not to promote one offering over another, but to suggest that when selecting a personal computer, energy efficiency during the working day should been considered as key by both the user and the company.

But sometimes making sustainable choices can be restricted by being tied to certain criteria, including specific operating systems that need to ‘match’ with corporate standards or specific application backwards compatibility.

However, this idea that corporate laptops and tablets all need to be a clone or the next closest evolution is perhaps outdated.

The majority of modern workers use cloud applications to access productivity suites today; where high security and remote access to bespoke or legacy applications is vital, then virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) or desktop as a service (DaaS) is available.

This means reliance on a particular locally installed desktop operating system is becoming less of an issue. As an example, VDI and DaaS allow for a virtual instance of your usual corporate workspace to be accessed on almost any type of device. A Microsoft Windows 10 desktop can appear on an Apple Mac OS device or perhaps a Chromebook.

These technologies are already highly prevalent, created by companies such as Citrix and Microsoft, so restriction-free and sustainable device choice has truly become a reality.

Impact on UK emissions

Over 254 million personal computers and notebooks are sold globally each year, and extrapolating the environmental impact that could be achieved in the UK alone is highly appealing.

As an indication, if all 10 million service sector employees selected an energy-efficient device the next time desktops or legacy laptops required replacement, an estimated combined abatement of greenhouse gas emissions in the region of 70% could be achieved.

When making personal computing device selections, organisations and employees participating in ‘bring your own device’ schemes should prioritise energy efficiency alongside cost, performance and aesthetics. Doing so could, over the next five years of device refresh, help us all on the path to achieving the nirvana of net zero end-user computing.

Armed with the accurate energy data and making the right choices for a sustainable future, together we can accelerate a move to low-carbon personal computing by appreciating that supplying less power to the people is a step in the right direction.

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