Do Energy-Efficient Electronics Reduce Energy Use, Really?

Do Energy-Efficient Electronics Reduce Energy Use, Really?

Thursday, November 7, 2013 - 5:45pm


By Erin Craig

A colleague lamented recently that while she’s working hard to make her company’s data centers more energy efficient, the people who drive energy consumption within the company seem to be less inclined. This surprised me because at a company as large and respected as hers (they’re on the S&P 500), I thought the energy managers would be fully behind a “less is more” approach.

It turns out she was referring to the real drivers of energy use, not the energy managers who sit on the receiving end of company energy demand. Energy managers manage the tailpipe, they don’t manage the engine. She was lamenting the engine behind it all: business unit managers who demand levels of uptime and data access speeds completely out of line with their business needs; IT staff who believe that more copies of files and applications are better than fewer; and software coders who don’t realize that database calls, network pings, automated refreshes and many other software features require electricity to execute. Yes, of course each ping takes only a minuscule amount of power, but a data center aggregates lots and lots of these minuscule amounts.

Which reminds me of my phone.

I recently upgraded my phone’s software only to discover that I’d unknowingly installed many new features that increase the phone’s energy use. Some of these operate in the background when the phone is otherwise idle, while others provide “cool” features such as visualization effects when I’m using the phone. Though I managed to disable some of these items, most were activated by default so I had to hunt them down one-by-one, and some couldn’t be adjusted at all.

It’s not that I don’t like the features. Also, most days it’s no trouble for me to plug my phone in so I’m not experiencing any major inconveniences with battery life. But I hate the gratuitous use of energy as if it meant nothing, and I resent having to spend an hour working my phone’s energy use down to where I want it.

What’s more, I’m sure the phone software designers thought about energy use, because the device runs on a battery and battery life has always been an important mobile phone feature. But I’m going to guess that their objectives had to do with how long a battery charge would last, not how much electricity the phone would require.

So here’s a reminder for cell phone designers: Energy used by a battery is the same as energy taken from the wall plug. It’s just time-shifted.

Cell phones in the microcosm, data centers in the macro. The hardware is getting more efficient, I’m sure of it. But I’m not convinced we don’t eat up all that efficiency with gratuitous copies of data which are then backed up up regularly, uploads and downloads we never look at, background refreshes that stay forever in the background, and the like.

Is anyone thinking about that?

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