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From green IT to IT for green

Did you know that the computer industry produces 2 per cent of all CO2 emissions -  as much as the entire world aircraft fleet? Did you know that downloading the electronic version of your daily newspaper consumes as much electricity as a washing machine? More alarming, are you aware that if no progress is made, in 20 years the global output of electricity will be barely sufficient to meet the energy demand of data centres?

So what can be done to reduce the impact of IT on the environment? Green IT has emerged recently as an answer. The term describes an approach that takes into account the constraints and energy costs (electrical power and cooling) of hardware. The aim of green computing is to benchmark and improve the energy performance of computers.

Built to be recycled

More specifically, Green IT takes into account environmental constraints, particularly energy costs, in the production and implementation of IT infrastructures. It assesses, for example, the power supply of computer equipment. But it is difficult to reconcile sustainable development with new information and communication technologies, because information systems in general are not designed to have a long life span. This is partly a consequence of the fast turnover from one generation of hardware to another, driven by Moore’s law.

To get a sense of what is at stake here consider the following statistics: in recent years, the power consumption of PCs has increased by 5 per cent every year, while for data centres the increase is three times greater. Electricity costs are growing rapidly and already surpass 10 per cent, on average, of the costs of running IT services. Overall, since 2008, there has been a paradigm shift: energy costs are now higher than the cost of buying the equipment! With steady growth in electrical consumption and a potential shortage of power envisioned as soon as 2030, it is critical to put more focus and effort into reducing the energy consumption of the IT industry.

Despite the efforts of hardware and software manufacturers, the lifetime of IT equipment remains limited. Therefore, the «cleantech» initiatives in IT have focused mainly on recycling components. This is an important initiative and it has generated new jobs and activities. These days, it addresses not only the recycling of a product but its associated environmental impact at various stages from cradle to grave. This means the life cycle assessments of IT products are becoming crucial.  Quantis, a spin-out of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology of Lausanne (EPFL), has become a leader in this field with subsidiaries in France, Canada and the United States.

Examples of good practice are plentiful and they are often easy for businesses to emulate. For example, it is possible to replace cathode ray tube (CRT) computer monitors with Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) screens that save energy. Companies can also extend the use of virtual servers (that is, run multiple servers on one physical machine). It is also possible to use the heat generated by electronic devices and computer servers, to warm buildings or other infrastructure (such as pools, etc). This provides a perfect example of the optimization of the thermodynamic cycle. It can be characterised as an industrial ecology approach, in which the «wastes» or residues of one activity provide a feedstock for another. Rethinking the concept of data centre

Green IT projects are already flourishing, for example, the data centre of the City of Lausanne and Yahoo’s project to install a data centre on the Swiss plateau. In general, we obtain optimal energy efficiency in the facility through a combination of a free cooling system, the recovery of excess heat, the use of an innovative cooling concept, which allows for optimal air circulation between the racks, and new technologies, including ventilated cabinets, direct cooling on the CPUs, etc..

However, planning for such infrastructures is not trivial. Indeed, service companies, such as information brokers, or banks, need a clear view of where they are going in the future. They have to anticipate technology developments and their impact on the volume of processing required, and must be able to assess the thermodynamics of infrastructures that generate more and more heat.  In the past we have seen large organizations over-sizing their computer rooms. They remained almost empty while investments amounted to tens of millions.  Similarly, the financial crisis has resulted in a loss of business which leaves some institutions unable to honour contracts signed with data centre developers.

It is crucial to rethink the concept of these centres, to ensure they are suited to change of use, and to better integrate them into the urban landscape. While the trend of the last decade was to decentralize this type of infrastructure and move it to out-of-town sites, today there is a movement to relocate these facilities within cities, to be able to recycle their waste heat. Innovation is at a crossroads

Solutions to the complex problems of our society are definitely multidisciplinary and intersectoral. Green IT is no exception. It is an excellent example of cross fertilisation between ICT and clean technologies. Cleantechs are any technologies, products or services that contribute to the conservation and sustainable use of resources and the production of renewable energy.

The boundaries between ICT and Cleantech are becoming increasingly blurred. Green IT is one of the interfaces, halfway between ICT and Cleantech. This forms the rationale for close cooperation in the field between the two technology clusters of Western Switzerland: Alp ICT and CleantechAlps. The Valais-based start-up Geroco is a good example of a company emerging from the interface of these two fields. Its solution, Ecowizz, manages the on and off switch of electrical appliances in homes and businesses according to a customizable plan. It saves energy and as a result is becoming a success story.  The electricity company Romande Energie offers this kit to its customers. And Geroco has recently raised CHF 800,000 from private investors. 

 

 

Geroco Ecowizz save power in the most energy demanding home appliances.

 

 

The potential for smart grids

Beyond Green IT, smart grids and computer security demonstrate the potential of ICT for green technologies. The smart grid is not a single technology but a range of technologies to make electricity networks more efficient, cheaper, more stable and ultimately safer. Again, Geroco navigates at the border of two worlds with applications that provide a means of communication between producers and end users. Ecowizz also allows electricity suppliers to better profile the habits of their subscribers and thus make more accurate predictions of consumption rates . At the same time companies based in Western Switzerland, like Saia-Burgess, Honeywell, Maxwell, LEM, and others are especially well-positioned in control devices and systems for smart grids.

Finally, the area of data protection is an exciting potential development for the region. With the rise of smart grids, the volume of data transmitted will grow. Data privacy and ensuring the reliability of transmissions are key critical elements of smart grids, to which companies and institutes in the region can apply their expertise. Western Switzerland intends to be a leading location for the sustainable economy that will be built on all  dimensions of green IT .

By Eric

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