Green Computing: How to Reduce Our Personal Carbon Footprints

thompson80By John Thompson
Staff Writer
22 November 2008

“I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.” That quote sounds quite timely as President-elect Obama made “green energy” part of his vision for America’s future, including using clean energy as an engine to create millions of new “green collar” jobs. So over the course of the 2008 presidential campaign, the general public has heard about his vision for clean energy and should be primed for that issue to be addressed in his new administration. But apart from what government and business can and should do to address the energy situation, what can and should individuals do to support this initiative? Specifically, what can individual computer users do to reduce their personal carbon footprints?

However, it seems somewhat self-defeating to embark on new, costly initiatives to reduce energy costs without also first examining ways in which we can make cost saving adjustments on the personal level. With over 300 million people in the USA, if each person, or even each office or household, made a conscious effort to examine his or her own use of energy, it would seem that the multiplier effect of millions of small daily changes would yield significant results on a national scale. What are some changes that individuals can make to support green computing and reduce their technology carbon footprints? Let’s look at some ways to start making a difference by picking just a few low-hanging fruits.

thompson01Power management. Keep computers and printers turned off unless you’re using them. Or at least set computer and monitor power management controls to enter low power “sleep” mode when your system is not actively in use. And while a PC does use some power in sleep mode, it’s very small—maybe 10% of what’s needed when it’s running at full power. Also, cut down on the time a computer operates unattended before it goes into sleep mode. The US Department of Energy estimates that a PC wastes up to 400 kilowatt-hours of electricity a year just by functioning at full power even though it’s not being used. Dell reportedly has saved almost $2 million and avoided 11,000 tons of CO2 emissions in one year through a global power-management initiative that calls for its employees to say “nighty-night” daily to their PCs by changing the power management setup so their PCS enter sleep mode each night.

E-mail. Look at our use of e-mail, which continues to explode. Personally, a quick count shows that I have sent close to 400 personal and business-related e-mails this month, and there’s still a week left in the month. And that number is a small fraction of the hundreds that I receive each day and of the estimated several hundred billion sent daily worldwide. Use e-mail to minimize paper use, but don’t routinely print them. Add a message at the bottom of your e-mails requesting that recipients save paper by thinking twice before printing them off their screens. I’ve seen administrators who have their administrative assistants print out all e-mails so they can read and maybe reply to them. Suggest outsourcing your organization’s e-mail to Gmail as Google probably runs its data centers much more economically and greener than you do. And switching can generate cost savings and maybe increased e-mail features for users.

Online learning. By clicking to enter your course instead of driving to campus you do away with commuting and parking hassles while also eliminating your car exhaust emissions. A 2005 report on the environmental impact of providing higher education courses found, “on average, the production and provision of the distance learning courses consumed nearly 90% less energy and thompson02produced 85% fewer CO2 emissions” (p. 4). Online courses also typically reduce paper use since traditional classroom courses still use large amounts of paper (e.g., handouts). Unless your instructor assigns a textbook (many of the online courses I teach have not used a print text in years), everything is digital through e-mail or using the Internet. So if you have a choice between taking a college course in a traditional campus setting or accessing your course from work or home, consider the online choice. No campus presence equates to less energy use, but be sure to use the power management settings on your computer system and resist the temptation to print out all your online reading assignments.

All these suggestions sound doable to most folks. In addition, there are many other simple ways to reduce your personal energy use. But we aren’t talking about going totally “green” and parking your car and walking everywhere. We’re simply looking at ways you—the person reading this blog online right now—can start making a small but significant difference.

Then why are most of these simple strategies not being implemented? Why are computer users not seeking to achieve the TBL—triple bottom line (economic, environmental and social)—and save money, help protect the environment, and do what’s right for society? Is it strictly an “I didn’t know” reason, or are there other obvious and not so obvious reasons that individuals are not taking personal responsibility to reduce their own carbon footprints? Is this a nation (world?) of people with little awareness of these small yet effective changes or just plain lazy folks waiting for government and business to light the light and lead us to reduced energy consumption? What do you think?

Oh, that opening quotation? That’s from Thomas Edison—in 1931. One would hope that there is more progress on sustainable energy in the near future than in the past 77 years.  Don’t leave it up to government or your boss. Little things YOU can do can make a big difference. Making small, almost seemingly insignificant changes can yield huge cumulative results. Green computing is just a change of habit.

2 Responses

  1. Add telecommuting to your list. Of course, you have to have a job that doesn’t require physical presence and an employer who is friendly to the idea. Millions of office jobs could be at least partly done remotely and would save huge amounts of carbon emissions as well as lots of personal time.

    As my own company grows, I’d like to avoid the stereotypical office building location and let all employees work from where they live. It’s the 21st century after all.

  2. Good addition (telecommuting), Harry. Thanks.

    Folks should see if their jobs can use the Internet to telecommute, maybe using a VPN like my son does each Friday so he does not have to go into the city. Telecommuting does not have to 100% of the time. Telecommuting can reduce your carbon footprint even if it’s only 1-2 days a week or less, or when you have to stay home because a repair person is coming.

    The federal government has required its agencies since 2001 to have a formal policy to let eligible workers telecommute, but much more progress can be made. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has had a “hoteling” program that lets its examiners work from home except for at least one hour a week when they need to go to a government office. At the trademark office, 85% of its examiners work from home full time, except for the mandated once-a-week check-in.

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