Sunday, December 26, 2010

Philippines Rationality

The changing color of technology
By Alma Buelva (The Philippine Star) Updated December 27, 2010 12:00 AM

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“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness; it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity; it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness...” — Charles Dickens

MANILA, Philippines - The words of the most popular English novelist of the Victorian era ring true 140 years after his death as humanity gets all wrapped up in the conveniences made possible by advanced technologies that, in turn, they also blame for polluting the planet.

Technology changes fast, but so does the climate. The best of both worlds doesn’t seem to exist anymore and can’t be had unless drastic measures are taken that will make the environment, to borrow a popular phrase from social networking, “add technology as friend.”

Unsustainable energy consumption and high levels of electronic waste and greenhouse gas emissions fly in the face of state-of-the-art technological progress. It’s been proven, however, that necessity is the mother of all invention and who else should know this better than the movers and shakers in the information technology (IT) industry who are addressing the need to “go green” with innovations designed not to damage nature any further.

Models of green

The IT industry is responsible for about two percent of the world’s carbon emissions and data centers are the fastest growing part of that footprint, according to a new report from Pike Research, a research company from Boulder, Colorado that specializes in market intelligence related to clean technology.

While energy efficiency has not traditionally been a major emphasis for IT companies, the industry is now highly focused on implementing solutions that will reduce energy expenses and carbon emissions, especially those associated with data center operations. Pike Research estimates investment in greener data centers will experience rapid growth over the next five years, increasing from $7.5 billion in global revenue to $41.4 billion by 2015, representing 28 percent of the total data center market.

Green data centers optimize their use of space, energy and IT resources with emphasis on virtualization. Software powerhouse SAP is among those that have taken the green route that last year saw a huge reduction in the carbon footprint of its global data centers.

In September, the German company announced that it cut its global carbon footprint by 15 percent last year, which meant savings of about €90 million. SAP said it reduced its carbon footprint from 501 kilotons of carbon in 2008 to 425 kilotons in 2009 by increasing the efficiencies of its data centers to lower energy consumption. In addition, the software company cut back on employee business travels by 32 percent and held more virtual meetings instead. It likewise encouraged its employees to carpool whenever possible.

A carbon footprint is the total amount of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide (CO2), caused by a company, event, product or individual. When environment-conscious IT companies are not focused on carbon footprints, they are literally looking up to the sun for sustainable solutions. Also, as they are wont to do, they turn to their own software tools to help improve their environmental standing.

The sun and software make for strange bedmates, but together they make for some of the best new tools that the IT industry is using to be friends with the earth again. A case in point is consumer electronics giant Sharp Electronics, which has been harvesting solar energy in every possible way. The company’s headquarters complex in Japan has manufacturing and office buildings literally covered with solar panels that steadily supply the company with an alternative and clean source of energy. A global leader in solar electricity, Sharp has brought the world the first solar-powered calculator and now has solar-powered products for residential and commercial applications.

Pike Research says the abundance of solar modules has cultivated demand for solar solutions so that between 2010 and 2013, solar demand will increase at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 24 percent.

Meanwhile, adoption of carbon management software and services by enterprises around the world is on the rise. This happens as corporations grapple with ways to accurately measure and reduce their carbon footprint to meet targets set by their own corporate sustainability programs, industry initiatives, and government mandates. Pike Research estimates the global market for carbon management software and services to expand by 40 percent annually from $384 million in 2009 to more than $4.3 billion by 2017.


The search for sustainable and clean sources of energy is also taking some Japanese inventors to look in the most unlikely places. One research is now exploring the possibility of harvesting energy from wasted body heat of people who just laze around the house or in front of the TV. Researchers believe wasted body heat of idle people could be captured and converted into energy to power at least the couch potatoes’ weapon of choice: the TV remote.

Top auto makers such as Honda and Toyota, along with 21 other Japanese companies, have gone on an “energy scavenging” campaign to create sustainable electronic devices for use at homes, offices and automobiles based on energy amassed from body warmth. According to Japanese researchers, even the smallest movements of the most determined couch potato could be turned into useful energy to power a battery-free TV remote or video game controller with the aid of vibration capture technology. If they succeed, being a couch potato could become a real job.

Vibration capture technology is also the inspiration behind another Japanese research that studied how heavy foot traffic, say in a subway station, could be turned into energy. With the help of sound waves, researchers developed a so-called “electricity-generating floor” that creates energy when passengers step on them. The energy is then stored in a capacitor for the subway’s use. Although more work is needed, an electricity-generating floor is designed to help subways and railways become more energy-efficient by tapping an unusual source of energy - footsteps. If this comes into fruition, then we all could walk the talk toward a greener future.

Carbon footprints

But should green technologies only preoccupy big organizations with equally big data centers and passionate researchers looking for solutions from under the seats of couch potatoes?

As any environment pundit would say, every individual can contribute something to ensure a healthy environment. For example, IT users could opt to buy only products that comply with standards set in the Energy Star, a government-backed program helping businesses and individuals protect the environment through superior energy efficiency. Or they could check the carbon footprints of technologies they use and know at least how something as ordinary as sending and receiving e-mail or reading online newspapers and e-books could affect the environment when multiplied by billions of instances daily worldwide.

Not everything new is green and it’s true with e-mail. Something as deceptively harmless as an e-mail does have carbon footprint. This makes useless spam messages all the more aggravating.

The average spam e-mail causes emissions equivalent to 0.3 gram of CO2 per message, according to a study on the environmental impact of spam conducted by climate change consultants ICT and spam expert Richi Jennings. In 2008, ICF said an estimated total of 62 trillion spam e-mails were sent worldwide.

The study, commissioned by virus protection and Internet security company McAfee, emphasized that the 0.3 gram of CO2 per spam, when multiplied by the annual volume of spam, is like driving around the earth 1.6 million times. The ICF arrived at this figure by calculating the energy use associated with each stage in the lifecycle of spam, including the energy used to create, transmit, receive, process or view, and filter spam. The total energy required adds up to more than 33 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh), which ICF said is roughly equivalent to the electricity used in 2.4 million homes and the greenhouse gas emissions of 3.1 million cars using two billion gallons of gasoline. If these parallel examples are not mind-blowing enough, the ICF added that the total energy wasted on spam is similar to the power provided by four large new coal power plants.

The study, which examined the degree of spam problems in 11 countries, maintained that the level of spam-related emissions per country is usually proportionate to the number of e-mail users. Simply put: the more users, the more spam. Also, ICF established that an average business e-mail user is responsible for 131kg of e-mail-related CO2 emissions per year and 22 percent of that are due to spam.

Self-serving or not, McAfee’s commissioned study showed that spam filtering could save 135 terawatt hours of electricity a year, which is equivalent to taking 13 million cars off the road. A day without spam is therefore good for the environment, the study concluded.

Meanwhile, the advent of online newspapers and electronic books or e-books caused many to ask if they are truly more environment-friendly than their paper versions that necessitate the cutting down of trees. The jury is still out on this one but because e-newspapers and e-books consume power, they also leave carbon footprints.

Mike Berners-Lee, a leading British expert who specializes in organizational responses to climate change, said if a person browses for an hour a week on a 50-watt laptop, the energy consumed is less than a weekly paper even if the direct electricity impact is scaled up by a factor of five to account for the production of the laptop, the networks and all the other IT products involved to upload the newspaper online.

Of course, a host of other factors must be considered to determine if online newspapers and e-books are greener than the paper products they replace. But in the meantime, those of us with an insatiable appetite for consuming digital products and services might do well to recall Dickens, yet again, who said, “Electric communication will never be a substitute for the face of someone who with their soul encourages another person to be brave and true.”


Anonymous said...

Speaking of solar, as it turns out... FINALLY! Some serious steps towards a commercially available solar energy plan. ( Now I know this is but a baby step, but with our government, this might as well be a milestone. Progress, progress.

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