Advanced Computing in the Age of AI|Thursday, August 13, 2020
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The Environmental and Economic Benefits of Knowing Your IT Carbon Footprint 

Whether because of rising energy costs, an increase in media coverage on global warming and climate change, or a host of other possible reasons, green IT has been gaining attention. For any organization, knowing their IT carbon footprint has multiple benefits. 

Whether because of rising energy costs, an increase in media coverage on global warming and climate change, or a host of other possible reasons, green IT has been gaining attention. For any organization, knowing their IT carbon footprint has multiple benefits. This knowledge can help organizations understand the economic and ecological impact of their IT use and encourage them to make changes to reap benefits in reduced costs and less environmental impact by adopting green computing approaches. This article features the experience of a leading-edge, mid-size organization in this process.

The value of knowing your carbon footprint

As a knowledge sharing organization working on environmental issues in the mountains of the Hindu Kush Himalayas, information and communication technology play a large role for the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development's operations, projects, and programmes. Given its mandate to improve the lives of people living in mountain areas and improve efforts across the region to protect the environment, ICIMOD was interested in measuring the carbon footprint of the ICT infrastructure of its headquarters in Kathmandu to ensure it was being environmentally responsible. In the face of rising energy prices in Nepal, equally motivating in gauging the Centre's carbon footprint was the guidance this information could provide toward reducing operating expenses and increasing social responsibility by reducing the Centre's overall environmental impact.

To take further action, this study was undertaken so the management would be able to make informed decisions on how to reduce the organization's IT-related energy consumption and IT carbon footprint. Carbon footprints are increasingly used as a stick by which to measure the volume of GHG emissions related to specific activities or products as expressed in terms of emitted CO2 equivalents. By identifying your organization or business' carbon footprint, it is easier to evaluate the assumptions and identify opportunities both to improve operational efficiency and to lower costs.

Prior to the assessment of the Centre's carbon footprint, ICIMOD had already taken measures toward this end including the virtualization of servers, the launch of workflow-enabled electronic forms to reduce paper use, encouraging video conferencing to substitute travel, the use of thin-clients where applicable, storage and printer consolidation, and the promotion of responsible paper usage. All of these measures have carbon management implications from an IT perspective, and all provide immediate cost savings while enhancing the organization's 'green' credentials. These can also be easily replicated or initiated by any organization looking to 'go green'.

Determining an organization's carbon footprint

The process of estimating the Centre's IT carbon footprint started with an energy measurement exercise for all desktop computers, laptops, and servers in use. To measure energy consumption, a digital energy meter measured the amount of electricity in KWh used by a device over a representative period of time. To calculate the total CO2 emissions, the figures were normalized to a common base in terms of hours of use, and then energy consumption was calculated using the algorithm used by AMEE, a company that helps companies make ecofriendly business decisions: CO2 = Energy consumed per year x Carbon emission factor x No. of computers.

The carbon emission factor is a set unit that varies from country to country. According to a voluntary reporting of greenhouse gases published by the Energy Information Administration of the US Department of Energy, the emission factor for Nepal, where ICIMOD is located, is 0.013 tonnes/MWh. In comparison, at the time of writing the US emission factor was 0.676 tonnes/MWh.

When evaluating the Centre's carbon footprint, usage was the primary focus. The study did not take into account the carbon usage during other phases of the computer product life cycle including designing and sourcing through manufacturing, order fulfillment, transportation, and product recovery or recycling. However, to establish an idea of the overall carbon footprint and to make the research comparable to other independent research, data on factors like manufacturing, transport, and recycling have been taken from figures reported for the same brand being used at ICIMOD.

Some findings and analysis

Altogether, the organization's servers and computers emit annual greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to about 775 kg of CO2. Considering the 158 PCs and 10 servers in use, the average CO2 emitted per computer per year came out to be 4.9 kg. While this figure may seem very small, it still has an impact on our environment. Additionally, it is a clear indicator of power consumption patterns on computing equipment. Sharing this information with the users of this equipment – employees of the organization – made them more aware of their own carbon footprint and encouraged them to make conscious decisions to save power where possible.

The emission factor used is significant. For Nepal, where a majority of the electricity is generated through clean and renewable sources, this figure is fairly low, making the CO2 equivalent lower than in other countries. Using the US emission factor of 0.676 tonnes/MWh to compare with other reports, the average CO2 emitted shoots to 255 kg per computer per year. Dell, in one of their own studies, has mentioned that the total greenhouse gas emissions including manufacturing, transport, use, recycling for the Latitude E6400 is equivalent to 350 kg of CO2 for the whole product life of four years when used in US. The figures for each step in the product lifeline from that study are approximately 165, 45, 170, and 30 kg of CO2 for manufacturing, transport, use, and recycling, respectively. The 30 kg CO2 equivalent for recycling is considered a carbon credit because the recycled material can be used directly to replace the primary material in new products.

The figures for the E6400 laptop from the Dell study gave us an idea of how to corroborate our own findings. At ICIMOD, there are 50 Latitude E6400 computers in use. One E6400 laptop consumes about 88.32 KWh of power per year. Using the figures from our study and assuming this computer is in the United States – where the emission factor is 0.676 – over four years the estimated CO2 emissions equivalent for manufacturing, transport, manufacturing, use and recycling is about 388 kg C02 (i.e., 165+45+238-30). This is comparable to Dell's report of 350 kg CO2 equivalent when using the computer in the US. If we take into account the use of an external monitor and dock, which is a common practice at ICIMOD, the figures are almost identical. Figure 1 illustrates this point.

Figure 1

In this phase of the work, key figures and trends have been identified which can be used to guide management measures to make informed and environmentally conscious action. One action as a follow-up to reduce energy consumption is the application of a centralized power management software control strategy to reduce energy consumption. Before doing that in a larger, organization-wide level, the team took three computer models being used and applied a defined power management setting. After this, they took measurements for a representative period of time as was done with the Dell Latitude E6400. The three different models used were the HP EliteBook 8560w, Dell Precision M4400, and Dell Precision 690 representing three different ranges of products. The power setting configuration is as given below in Table 1.

Table 1

Settings

Battery

Plugged in

Dim display

2 min

5 min

Turn off display

5 min

10 min

Put into sleep

15 min

15 min

 

The results obtained for the three models measured is shown below compared to measurements taken after applying specific power-saving management settings.

Table 2

Computer Model

Carbon foot print for each computer model in Kg of CO2 eq. per year

Carbon foot print for each computer model in Kg of CO2 eq. per year, after applying specific power management setting

Dell Precision M4400

2.10

2.05

Dell Precision 690

6.67

4.8

HP EliteBook 8560w

1.51

1.5

 

These measurements indicate that modified power management settings did not result in significant energy savings for laptops (HP EliteBook or Dell Precision M4400), in fact, there was no noticeable reduction in carbon footprint (Table 2). However, for the desktop model (Dell Precision 690) the same changes led to a reduction of 1.87 kg of CO2. This shows that by simply improving the programmed power management settings, there are significant potential CO2 savings on desktop computers. For laptops, energy consumption is increasingly optimized in the design, and most often the default factory settings work best. Ultimately, it makes the case that use of power management features needs to be applied by the users more uniformly in order to contribute to lowering CO2 emissions.

Using the data from these measurements and findings, further organization-wide energy management strategies can be implemented and new technologies can be introduced to reduce the Centre's IT carbon footprint.

PC power management is a low-hanging fruit for any organization looking to reduce its carbon footprint. By calculating the total carbon footprint for all sources, organizations also have an opportunity to see if they can become carbon neutral, e.g., by balancing a measured amount with amount offset. Developing a green computing strategy with proper environmental systems for monitoring and reporting in place and recording measurements will help any organization meet its growing environment-related challenges.

Author's note: Appreciation goes to my colleagues Saisab Pradhan and Jay Karmacharya for their support in taking up this study and to Anja Rasmussen to motivate me to write a paper.

About the Author

Sushil Pandey is a Nepalese national and currently works in the area of ICT for Development (Information and Communication Technology for Development) under the Knowledge Management and Communication unit at ICIMOD , whereby he is strengthening the programmatic functions of the Centre to use ICT in their socio-economic development efforts across the region.

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