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Ron Dembo Headshot

Black is the New Green

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Let's think for a moment about something we never notice - our screen savers. Around the world, right now, complex geometric shapes and patterns are bouncing around screens in empty offices and quiet suburban basements. Even when you're gone for lunch, your screen saver labors on.

If electricity were free, this wouldn't be worth thinking about. But then again, if electricity were free, the world would look very different. Very different.

The fact is, we are scrambling to find new sources of power and new efficiencies. We're spending billions to do it. And at the same time, we're using computers that quietly drain the grid.

Does this sound like an exaggeration? Let's put it this way. It takes about 100 watts an hour to run a screen saver on a graphics card. (Obviously, that's the same as keeping a 100W light bulb turned on.) Some systems will use a bit less, some a bit more. But let's say 100 watts.

Now, there are over 600 million computers in the world, many of which never get turned off. For the sake of argument, let's say their screen savers are running around the clock.

That's 60,000 Megawatts an hour. Just to keep shapes bouncing around a screen.

Just to put that in perspective, the largest wind turbines out there are rated at 10 MW.

A large coal-fired plant generates about 300 MW.

Even China's Three Gorges hydroelectric dam, which is so huge that filling its reservoir actually made the Earth wobble on its axis, is rated at 30,000 MW.

Imagine -- it takes twice as much power as a generator of this monstrous scale can produce, just to avoid letting our screens go dark. It's absurd.

No one would leave a 100W light bulb on all day for no good reason. And no one would leave a screen saver on if they thought for a moment about what a waste of electricity it represents. We need to start thinking about these things. And Zerofootprint proposes getting us started.

The fact is that the sheer ubiquity of computers, and the scale of their electricity demand, amplifies every efficiency we find. If we can save millions of MW just by setting our desktops to let their screens go dark imagine what we could achieve if we looked at the whole system the same way.

Do you know what your computer is doing when you go home at night?

Let's say you're one of the people whose computer is humming long after you've shut off the lights (if you shut off the lights, that is). Your machine is sipping electricity. And there are millions upon millions of other computers doing the same right now around the world. How much electricity are they using to do nothing at all?

Enough to supply power to the Czech Republic for an entire year.

And have enough left over to charge an electric car to drive around the globe 379,000 times.

The fact is that computers use electricity, and there are about 650,000,000 of them out there. There will soon be a lot more, and every new generation of processor uses more power than the one it replaces. In other words, energy demand from computers is going to continue to rise. The cost of running a computer is quickly overtaking the cost of buying it. Just ask Google.

In itself, this is not a promising model. But it's even worse to consider that a huge part of the cost is allocated to have your computer do nothing. The cost of all this useless electricity is conservatively estimated at between $5 and $7 billion each year.

And let's not overlook the environmental cost. Idle computers contribute about 45 million tonnes of CO2 to the atmosphere. That's enough of the greenhouse gas to fill 810 billion birthday balloons.

All this to accomplish nothing.

Is it difficult to imagine 810,000,000,000 balloons? It should be easier to imagine doing something about the problem.

We know that others have recognized this colossal waste of electricity and unnecessary pollution before we did. Zerofootprint didn't just figure this out. But we'll take up the challenge. That's what we're imagining right now. We want to make all the computers in the world smarter.

After all, it's not a huge problem. If an idle computer is wasting electricity, shut it down. Your idle computer is like a 600-hp Porsche inching through downtown traffic. The car is not deploying all its power-why should your desktop? We need to find a way to get it to do its background processing and other non-critical tasks at a much-diminished speed. After all, laptops draw about a quarter of the power that a desktop does. In part this is a function of hardware. But it is also a question of using electricity more carefully, in order to manage battery life. We should be doing the same with the power that comes out of the wall.

Imagine an open-source project that allowed people to come together to write this thing, so that all the Microsoft, Sun, and Linux systems could figure out when to take a rest. Think of the billions of dollars saved. Think of the tons of carbon saved, and the power plants that wouldn't have to be built.

One of the things that's so enticing about the prospect of building software to make computers more efficient is that everybody wins. Users save money, a burden is lifted from the environment, and we will have, in effect, generated megawatts of electricity for next to nothing. That is, not using all that electricity is the same as contributing it to the grid. That amounts to generating electricity with a good idea and some smart programming.

So if you're a programmer, we need your opinion, and we need your know-how. Are you interested in joining an open-source project to reduce our computers' footprint? Then respond to this blog. We're looking for the wisdom of the crowd to sort out a bit of a mess. Talk to your friends and your colleagues. Think about the problem. Think about a solution. Let's put our heads together to do some good for the world.