New push to curb 'cyberwarming' from computers

Google, Intel, Microsoft, Dell, and Hewlett-Packard pledged this week to develop and use more energy-efficient computers and computer components.

A new term may be joining the jumble of climate-change jargon: cyberwarming.

That's the new lingo being used to denote the tremendous amount of electricity consumed by the world's millions of computers, which adds to greenhouse-gas emissions.

A Climate Savers Computing Initiative, spearheaded by industry leaders such as Google, Intel, Microsoft, Dell, and Hewlett-Packard, pledged this week to develop and use more energy-efficient computers and computer components.

That could cut the amount of electricity computers consume by 50 percent in the next four years, saving $5.5 billion in electricity costs, the consortium says. Annual greenhouse-gas emissions would drop by 54 million tons annually – the equivalent of taking 11 million cars off the road or shutting down 20 large coal-fired power plants, according to a story on the initiative by the Associated Press.

Energy Star, a program operated by the Environmental Protection Agency, already sets power-efficient standards for many appliances including computers, The Wall Street Journal reports. The proposed standards would use that requirement as a starting point and set stricter standards over the years.

One recent study showed that computers account for about 2 percent of the world's carbon emissions. A typical PC today wastes about half of the energy it consumes, the group says. While computers designed to be more energy-efficient would initially cost $20 or so more per unit, that cost would be quickly made up in lower electric bills. And the benefits wouldn't stop there, said Google cofounder Larry Page in the AP story:

"It will also make computers better by taking out some of the inefficiencies of computers, it will make them quieter and more reliable."

While in the US private industry is taking the initiative, in Britain the government is attacking the problem. It's exploring an even more radical solution to cyber-warming: replacing PCs with dumb computer terminals. A pilot project planned for the city of Manchester next year would replace computers in homes with a "thin client" system, essentially returning to the days when central computers did the data crunching and users needed nothing more than a screen and a keyboard.

Putting stripped-down terminals in homes could reduce energy consumption by as much as 98 percent, says Atul Hatwal, a spokesman for the Green Shift Task force, which is planning the pilot project, in a story in the British science magazine Nature online.

Household computers are overmuscled behemoths that use only 5 percent of their processing power, Mr. Hatwal says. "PCs are fairly complex, large machines that are massively underused by the majority."

Dumb terminals are in use already at places such as CERN, the world's largest particle physics laboratory located near Geneva, the Nature story goes on to say. They should be especially useful to nonprofessionals, says CERN's Tapio Niemi.

The users won't "need to worry about software applications," he says in the Nature story, meaning they won't be bothered by constant downloads and updates for their computer. Most people are already familiar with the idea of storing their digitized stuff remotely, he says, making use of the online public photo archive Flickr or Web-based e-mail storage from Hotmail or G-mail.

But a story in Techworld, a British online technology magazine, cast a skeptic's eye on the whole enterprise, noting that precious little had been disclosed about what kind of equipment would be used, how the network would work, or how existing PC users would be persuaded to "ditch" their current energy-guzzling machines.

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