Computing/Consumer electronics

The Carbon Footprint of Games Distribution

Mayers, K., Koomey, J., Hall, R., Bauer, M., France, C. and Webb, A. (2014), The Carbon Footprint of Games Distribution. Journal of Industrial Ecology. doi: 10.1111/jiec.12181

Abstract: This research investigates the carbon footprint of the lifecycle of console games, using the example of PlayStation®3 distribution in the UK. We estimate total carbon equivalent emissions for an average 8.8-gigabyte (GB) game based on data for 2010. The bulk of emissions are accounted for by game play, followed by production and distribution. Two delivery scenarios are compared: The first examines Blu-ray discs (BDs) delivered by retail stores, and the second, games files downloaded over broadband Internet. Contrary to findings in previous research on music distribution, distribution of games by physical BDs results in lower greenhouse gas emissions than by Internet download. The estimated carbon emissions from downloading only fall definitively below that of BDs for games smaller than 1.3 GB. Sensitivity analysis indicates that as average game file sizes increase, and the energy intensity of the Internet falls, the file size at which BDs would result in lower emissions than downloads could shift either up- or downward over the next few years. Overall, the results appear to be broadly applicable to title games within the European Union (EU), and for larger-than-average sized games in the United States. Further research would be needed to confirm whether similar findings would apply in future years with changes in game size and Internet efficiency. The study findings serve to illustrate why it is not always true that digital distribution of media will have lower carbon emissions than distribution by physical means when file sizes are large.

America’s Data Centers Consuming Massive and Growing Amounts of Electricity

Via the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Much of the massive amounts of electricity that America’s data centers devour to support our business and online activity is being wasted running computer servers doing little or no work most of the time, according to a report released today by the Natural Resources Defense Council. Improved energy efficiency practices could cut energy waste by at least 40 percent, saving over $3 billion annually.

“Most of the attention is focused on the highly visible hyperscale ‘cloud’ data centers like Google’s and Facebook’s, but they already are very efficient and represent less than 5 percent of U.S. data center electricity consumption. Our small, medium, corporate, and multi-tenant data centers are still squandering huge amounts of energy,” said Pierre Delforge, NRDC director of high-tech energy efficiency.

Developed in partnership with Anthesis, “Scaling Up Energy Efficiency Across the Data Center Industry: Evaluating Key Drivers and Barriers” notes that while huge “cloud” server farms have made significant efficiency improvements, progress has been much slower and uneven across the nearly 3 million other data centers in businesses and organizations that house 95 percent of servers across the country, costing them billions of dollars and kilowatt hours. In fact, up to one-third of servers are no longer needed but are still consuming large amounts of electricity while many others are grossly underutilized, operating at no more than18 percent of capacity, the report said.

On the whole, U.S. data centers guzzled an estimated 91 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity in 2013 —enough to power all of New York City’s households twice over and growing. And data center power needs are estimated to grow significantly. By 2020, annual data center energy consumption is expected to reach 140 billion kilowatt hours in the nation. This could cost business $13 billion annually for electricity equivalent to that generated by 50 large coal-fired power plants emitting nearly 150 million tons of carbon pollution.

Although the full extent of energy waste is unknown due to a lack of consistent metrics, the report estimates that if just half of the potential savings from cost-effective energy efficiency best practices were realized, electricity use could be cut by 40 percent. In 2014, that would equal $3.8 billion in savings for businesses and cut 39 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity, equivalent to the electicity generated by 34 large, coal-fired power plants and enough to power all of Michigan’s homes for a year.

“New practices and policies are needed to accelerate the pace and scale of the adoption of energy efficiency best-practices throughout the industry,” Delforge said. “Nearly one-third of all leased data center space will come up for renewal over the next year, so the time to act is now.”

Key findings from the NRDC-Anthesis report include:

  • Up to 30 percent of servers are “comatose” and no longer needed because projects have ended or business processes changed, but are still plugged in and consuming electricity.
  • Much of the energy consumed by U.S. data centers powers servers operating at 12 to 18 percent of capacity. Even sitting virtually idle, servers use significant amounts of power 24/7.
  • In 80 percent of organizations, the department responsible for data center management is separate from the one paying the electric bills. This “split incentive” reduces the likelihood of implementation of commonsense efficiency measures.

The report makes a number of  recommendations, including: aligning incentives for decision makers, developing simple metrics for measuring server utilization, public disclosure of data center energy and carbon performance, and establishing “green leases” for multi-tenant data centers.

Short and long versions of the report can be found at http://www.nrdc.org/energy/data-center-efficiency-assessment.asp. Delforge’s blog is at  http://switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/pdelforge/new_study_americas_data_center.html. An infographic and graphs are available.

The comparative environmental impact of e-mail and paper mail

Several days ago, a friend made a sarcastic comment on Facebook about how much better e-mail is for the environment (in the context of spammers choosing e-mail over paper mail). That made me wonder about the relative impact of paper vs. electronic mail. So, I did what librarians do: I went to Google and started searching. Here’s what I found.

There have been a couple of life cycle studies of paper mail delivery. Pitney-Bowes published a study in 2008 which found that:

…the distribution of letter mail by the Posts generates, on average, about 20 grams of CO2 per letter delivered. In addition, a survey of more than a dozen studies shows that the indicative range of CO2 emissions associated with the upstream mail piece creation process is about 0.9 – 1.3 grams of CO2 per gram of paper. (p. 2).

The U.S. Postal Service commissioned a similar study in 2008, which found:

  • Total energy consumed by the four mail products accounts for 0.6% of national energy consumption, a figure that seems reasonable given the quantities of mail in the U.S. economy, and the energy-intensive nature of paper and board production, printing, and motor vehicle transportation.
  • At the household level, energy and CO2 emissions associated with the entire mail life cycle are roughly comparable to those from operating any of several common home appliances over the same period of time. (p.ES-2)

Both the Pitney-Bowes and USPS studies also looked at other environmental impacts, including waste generation and recycling rates. The Pitney-Bowes report also did a preliminary investigation of electronic communications compared to mail, which found that energy use of information communication technology is about 2% of total U.S. energy use, which is comparable to that of the paper industry. They were unable to calculate a comparative environmental footprint for the two methods.

In 2009, McAfee commissioned a report on the environmental impact of junk e-mail (spam). The results were eye-opening:

  • An estimated worldwide total of 62 trillion spam emails were sent in 2008
  • The average spam email causes emissions equivalent to 0.3 grams of carbon dioxide (CO2) per message
  • Globally, annual spam energy use totals 33 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh), or 33 terawatt hours (TWh). That’s equivalent to the electricity used in 2.4 million homes, with the same GHG emissions as 3.1 million passenger cars using two billion U.S. gallons of gasoline. (Key Findings)

There are also several research papers which explore the overall environmental impact of electronic communications, including e-mail and e-commerce. These include:

Although on a per message basis, it appears that e-mail has a lower environmental footprint that of paper mail, the comparative ease and perceived low or no cost of e-mail makes it more likely that people will choose it over paper mail, which requires a stamp and a trip to a mailbox or post office. In aggregate, e-mail has a significant environmental footprint, which may be even higher than that of paper mail.

The bottom line: Although e-mail appears to be a better environmental choice than paper mail because there is no obvious up-front waste stream, the research paints a much more nuanced picture, particularly when the including the environmental impact of electronics manufacturing and data center operation.

Scarcity of Elements in Products Like Smartphones Needs Addressing, Say Scientists

Read the full story from the American Chemical Society.

Many of today’s technological innovations from the iPhone to electric motors for hybrid cars require the use of materials — elements — that are scarce or difficult to obtain. As demand for these devices grows, the problem of dwindling critical element supplies must be addressed. That’s the conclusion of a white paper written by eminent scientists. The product of the 5th Chemical Sciences and Society Summit (CS3), the white paper recommends focusing research on finding alternative materials and new approaches to technology development in order to prevent these elements from disappearing.

The white paper, “The Efficient Use of Elements,” is a topic of discussion at this year’s the 248th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS), the world’s largest scientific society. The meeting features nearly 12,000 reports on new advances in science and other topics. It is being held here through Thursday.

Jennifer Pahlka: What I learned as Uncle Sam’s tech geek

Read the full post at GreenBiz.

The late leadership guru Peter Drucker once wrote, “In any organization, regardless of its mission, the CEO is the link between the Inside, i.e., ‘the organization,’ and the Outside — society, the economy, technology, markets, customers, the media, public opinion.”

Last year, Code for America executive director Jennifer Pahlka took those words to heart and headed to Washington, D.C., for a one-year “fellowship” as U.S. Deputy Chief Technology Officer in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Her goal: to better understand the public sector agency that the organization’s private-sector technology experts are trying to serve.

While she was there, Pahlka witnessed firsthand the passionate, 20-hour-per-day work of the private-sector technology advisers called in to rescue the ailing Healthcare.gov site. In June, she returned to her Code for America post in San Francisco, Calif., recommitted to her nonprofit organization’s mission of harnessing technology to solve community problems.