Page last updated at 10:18 GMT, Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Can the tech community go green?

Following a trip to Geneva, Bill Thompson began wondering about how much electricity he uses.

A Dell laptop
Laptops could benefit from more energy efficiency

I was lucky enough to go to Geneva last week for part of the LIFT conference.

LIFT is one of the highlights of the technophile calendar, an opportunity to meet up with some of the most interesting people around and engage in debate about the future with those who are actually building it instead of waiting for it happen.

The nice people at the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) sent me there to talk about an online community they run called wattwatt (where I am a paid adviser), and a competition for schoolchildren around the world to come up with ideas for cutting electrical consumption called care4It (of which I'm an unpaid judge).

As I was doing my pitch for the technology community to take more of an interest in energy use - lauding the efforts to date of IBM, Google and Intel - I looked out from the stage to see hundreds of laptops ranged in front of me.

About half of the audience had their computers open, casting cold light onto their faces as they turned to listen or looked down to type some notes, answer e-mails or chat to their friends.

But just before my session I'd seen a couple of people trying to get their XO-1 laptops to talk to each other.

Uncomfortable reality

Bill Thompson
Many of my geeky friends seem either unaware of or unconcerned with the energy use of the myriad of devices they acquire and use, and it is about time we woke up
Bill Thompson

The XO-1 is the small green computing machine developed by the One Laptop Per Child project, and it has been built to be energy-efficient not because the designers wanted to save the planet but because electricity will be scarce and expensive in the countries it will end up in.

And it occurred to me that if the laptops in front of me had all been XO-1s, designed to use as little power as possible and even to shut down the central processor when nothing was happening, then the conference as a whole could have saved significant energy.

Of course we were in Switzerland so, as someone pointed out to me later, the power probably came from hydroelectricity with zero carbon load.

But that wasn't the point. The point is that many of my geeky friends seem either unaware of or unconcerned with the energy use of the myriad of devices they acquire and use, and it is about time we woke up, because we face an uncomfortable reality.

Human impact on the planet has been more significant than any other species since the first bacteria started photosynthesising and generated enough atmospheric oxygen to enable animal life to thrive.

Geologists have recently started saying that we need a new name for our geological era, that we have moved from the Holocene to the Anthropocene, a geological era that will be noted by future geologists - human or otherwise - for the preponderance of soot, cement and plastic in the sedimentary rocks laid down in our time.

Global warming

Children using the XO laptop
The XO is efficient because energy is scarce in the developing world

Our reliance on carbon-based fuels to supply most of our energy needs has added enough carbon dioxide to the atmosphere to affect the mechanisms that have given us a temperate and relatively stable climate system for the last 10,000 years, and we can anticipate significant changes as a result.

The distribution of human habitation will be directly affected; species diversity on the planet may diminish, at least temporarily; and the relatively temperate weather patterns we have been accustomed to for the 10,000 years or so it has taken our species to emerge from the plains and conquer the world may be replaced by far more severe patterns of meteorological activity.

Even if this is unlikely to be species-threatening it would be far better to reduce the impact of the coming changes by cutting the release of carbon into the atmosphere. Energy efficiency, especially when it comes to electricity, is a vital part of that process.

Being more efficient might buy us more time to reach a proper solution to the problem of global warming, but we have to be careful that we don't just end up giving politicians an excuse to do nothing because the science is as clear as it can be and significant action is vital.

It isn't certain but then nothing in science is certain, not even the existence of the very electrons that are driving your computer as you read this.

We have a well-grounded theory that incorporates the electron as a particle, but it could be wrong. So it is with climate change.

The evidence is compelling but no scientist would say that it is certain, because no good scientist can be certain about anything in the way that newspaper editors and politicians so often claim to be.

One way to encourage careful use is to provide more information about energy consumption.

Sitting here with my 17-inch flat screen monitor's screen saver going and my low-energy bulb in my desk lamp I wondered which was the best way to illuminate the desk.

A quick search indicates that my monitor is using 35W, a bulb around 15W, so I should turn off the monitor if I'm not actually typing. But what about my laptop screen? Should I use that instead?

Competitive about energy

In this case smart meter which monitors electricity consumption and displays it would be invaluable. If I want to know how much power my laptop is using then I can plug it in and watch the readout go up.

But we can do more.

One of the more interesting toys mentioned at LIFT was the "Wattson" meter.

It is a smart meter with a difference, because it stores data for the past four weeks and has a USB socket so you can download it to your computer and plot graphs, look at trends and even upload the information to their community site.

Getting people to be competitive about their low energy use is an excellent idea, and I can't wait to see Facebook apps and MySpace widgets that show energy use and your ranking against your friends and colleagues.

It might even persuade the geeks to think more seriously about leaving their chargers plugged in and computers turned on all the time.

Epilogue: I know that flying to Geneva isn't exactly a great way to show my commitment to the environment, even if I did offset the carbon load of my flight. But I don't believe that we need to stop flying, or give up our advanced industrial economies in order to limit climate change, and often being in the same room as a group of people is the only way to make a connection to them.

Bill Thompson is an independent journalist and regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet.

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