Computer users can save money and help the environment by making better use of basic tools for desktop PC power management.
It's a simple message but one that's sometimes hard to get across, especially to home users who don't realise how much electricity their computers waste if they don't take steps to manage consumption, said Mark Bramfitt, head of the consumer energy efficiency group at Pacific Gas & Electric, a California utility.
Power management tools ship with virtually all computers these days but the US Environmental Protection Agency reckons that most home users turn them off within a few months of buying a PC, Bramfitt said.
"There's a tremendous opportunity for energy efficiency and environmental improvements, but influencing individual PC users is a very difficult thing to do," he said at an energy efficiency seminar arranged by the Business Council on Climate Change.
The management tools can yield annual energy savings of £10 to £15 per desktop computer, according to Bramfitt. For big companies that operate thousands of PCs that quickly adds up to a lot of money.
The tools allow the computer to turn off the processor and hard drive after they have been idle for, say, 15 minutes, and put the whole computer into standby after 30 minutes. That reduces the energy consumed by a PC from roughly 100W to 40W with the power tools enabled, Bramfitt said.
To enforce power management, companies can use network-based tools that allow the settings on a PC to be controlled centrally. PG&E and other utilities give rebates to companies that use these tools because it helps them to avoid having to construct new power plants.
The tools, from companies such as Faronics, Scriplogic and Veridiem, range in price from $15 to $20 (£7.50 to £10) per computer, said Alena Gilchrist [cq], a senior project manager with the City of San Francisco's SF Environment group. PG&E will subsidise the cost to the tune of $15 per PC for businesses, and the City of San Francisco gives slightly more.
PC makers could do more to help. Around half of the energy PCs consume is sucked up by inefficient power supplies, Bramfitt said. More efficient supplies are available but cost about $20, compared to $5 for the cheap ones, so PC makers don't use them.
Much of the wasted energy pours out as heat, which adds to air conditioning bills. "The PC that sits under your desk at home or in the office kinda looks like a toaster to PG&E," he said. "Half the energy that goes into it comes out as heat."
The PC vendors are taking some steps. Many of them last year joined the Climate Savers Computing Initiative, which aims to cut power consumption by computers in half by 2010, in part by using 90 percent efficient power supplies.
There are also free tools for optimizing PC power settings, including LocalCooling from Uniblue Research Labs.
Tom Block, president of the green-focussed computer reseller Block Data Systems, said his company builds "mobile on desktop" computers for companies to reduce their energy use. They are small form-factor PCs built from the more energy efficient components designed for laptop computers.
His other tips for cutting PC energy use: enable power management and hibernation features, turn PCs off when they are not in use, and replace CRT monitors with LCDs.
Almost all of California's utilities offer rebates for using energy-saving IT products, and about 30 utilities nationwide have joined Bramfitt's coalition to promote their use. PG&E has been the most aggressive in offering rebates, in part because it is home to so many giant technology companies and data centers.
"I've seen a statistic that one-fifth of the internet traffic in the world passes through Silicon Valley, and that's why we have the issues we have," he said.
Cutting energy use in PCs only becomes more urgent as their use becomes more widespread.
"We've got around a billion people in the world using PCs right now," Bramfitt said. "If we get the other four to five billion hooked up then we'll really have an issue on our hands."