Green Computing

Have you ever received an email with a symbol at the end, like a little green tree or a dragonfly, and a message asking, “Please — Only print this email if necessary”? Then you’ve been exposed to Green IT. 

You can expect to hear lots more about the term, which covers a whole bunch of initiatives related to diminishing the environmental footprint of technology.

At the other end of the scale, Google Inc. put acres of photovoltaic solar cells on the roofs of its headquarters building in California and invested in a hydroelectric dam in Washington state to find “greener” power.

Jessica Vreeswijk of Terrabytes Consulting is a consultant in Victoria who does conventional information technology work. She was IT manager for two years at the Royal B.C. Museum but, last year, started to specialize in the green side.

Her definition says Green IT “refers to initiatives that reduce the environmental footprint of technology.” It covers more than just switching off a computer when not in use. It can mean that, plus measures such as swapping older PCs for more efficient equipment, educating staff, and making different choices in business operations.
Even just shutting down a desktop computer after business hours can make IT managers in an organization nervous. As Vreeswijk explains, how can they distribute software fixes to the office network if some of the machines are turned off?


“We weren’t just looking at energy; we’re looking at ways to run your business,” says Vreeswijk, who has produced a manual called the Green IT Guide with ideas and best practices for businesses and organizations, including a list of websites for information. It also has background white papers and suggested measurement tools for business.

A recent energy-efficiency project Vreeswijk did for a Victoria public-sector organization, where IT uses nine per cent of all energy, will reduce power use for IT functions by 60 per cent.

“What I’m seeing in Green IT is it’s all starting with the big companies,” she says.

It got going several years ago and now is starting to become more common, especially with large organizations looking for ways to save money in the recession. For example, B.C. Hydro is now subsidizing something called “network power management” for its major corporate power customers, the ones who spend at least $100,000 a year on electricity. IT power use isn’t a small part of your electric bill. From 10 to 30 per cent of power use is from IT equipment: PCs, servers, printers, modems, routers, and so on.

Another Green IT venture is 80Plus, which aims to improve the efficiency of power supplies in PCs. Computer workstation efficiency now averages between 55 and 75 per cent.

One useful but simple gadget Vreeswijk uses is a power-consumption device. (One brand is the “Kill A Watt” meter sold at Canadian Tire and elsewhere for about $25.) It plugs into a power outlet, and your computer or server plugs into the meter, which stores information on electricity consumption. Computer power use can vary widely — anywhere from 65 to 250 watts per hour, according to Vreeswijk’s Green IT Guide.

“Server virtualization” is a technique being adopted to reduce the number of servers — computers that power a business network or allow websites to be accessed by many users — and, thus, cut power consumption.Companies like VMWare of Seattle market software that makes one server function like two or more. Data servers use a lot of power. BC Hydro estimates electricity use for these devices is doubling every five years. The power company says as many as 30 physical servers can be consolidated into one.

Vreeswijk says there is more information available all the time on the subject, and she’s attempted to “dig through all the vendor mumbo jumbo” and make recommendations for IT managers “in a vendor-neutral way.”

More energy-efficient hardware is a big part of the Green IT movement, but it also covers business practices and behaviours. “Can you print double-sided, is your printer capable?… Do you buy all new [equipment] or incrementally upgrade?” asks Vreeswijk.

Another part of the green computing movement is responsible recycling. Look for manufacturers and retailers that take back the waste packaging and the hardware once it’s obsolete.

She likes EPEAT — the “electronic product environmental assessment tool” developed in North America a couple of years ago that now ranks more than 1,000 manufacturers of computers as either gold, silver, or bronze for energy use and other environmental aspects. See

A note for individuals looking for an EPEAT-rated home computer: its website says the rating system was developed for institutional and corporate purchasers, who are the major buyers of computers. PCs for business or government can be different from products aimed at home users. At home, we like more memory, faster processing, better sound and video, all of which consume more power. Business computers listed with EPEAT “may have fewer bells and whistles than a consumer model,” so the rating may not translate exactly. “Consumers are historically very sensitive to price, performance, and flashiness and have not expressed any clear preference for environmentally friendly electronics, so manufacturers have generally designed accordingly.

“For example, a high-efficiency power supply can reduce the life-cycle cost and environmental impacts of a computer but adds a few dollars to the up-front retail price, so a high-efficiency power supply has rarely been part of the configuration of consumer oriented PCs,” says EPEAT.

As a related feature, EPEAT asks whether manufacturers offer to take back the product, packaging, and dead batteries.

All of these Green IT fixes aren’t cost-free, but most have a payback of less than a year, says Vreeswijk. On average, you can reduce energy costs by an average of 15 per cent, and, with B.C. Hydro about to boost power rates by 11 per cent over the next two years, Green IT may be worth looking at.