Computing the energy problem
In May 2009, a Brussels seminar examined the potential of computers to save energy – and the obstacles to realising that potential.
It seems obvious: computers can help save, rather than just consume, energy. They can manage the heating and cooling systems in buildings, or improve the energy efficiency in cars, factories and energy, to name but a few examples. The possibilities are almost limitless, so why has all this potential not yet become reality?
That was the question posed at an unusual Brussels seminar of computer scientists, economists, industry executives and European Union officials organised in May 2009 by Science|Business, with the support of Microsoft Research and Scottish Enterprise. The answers that emerged: a lack of incentives for people to adopt the energy-saving computer technologies, a series of financial obstacles to deployment and a mindset of narrow thinking that prevents people from seeing the bigger picture. Then there’s the way computers themselves are made and used – for many people, simply left on all day whether needed or not.
The issue is fundamental to our modern age. Computing pervades our everyday lives, not just in the workplace, but also in our cars, our kitchens, our living rooms. Computers outnumber us and so they are clearly a part of how we address big issues such as concerns about energy use and climate change, said Andrew Herbert, managing director of Microsoft Research Cambridge, UK.
Information and communication technologies (ICT) can help the issues be understood, managed and potentially overcome with commercial solutions. To achieve that potential, though, attitudes need to be more cross-disciplinary, reliable information is key, financial and regulatory incentives may be needed and the factors that drive human behaviour must always be borne in mind. Once all that is in place, a greener, more energy-efficient economy should be more easily achieved.
In fact, the EU estimates that, while computers are at present energy hogs, in the longer run they have the potential to save five times as much carbon dioxide as they generate.
So how to get that saving? The seminar highlighted several issues that need solution.
Issue 1: ‘Silo’ thinking
One absolute must, according to participants in the seminar, is bringing different disciplines together. Just as the challenges themselves embrace several areas, so must the solutions.
The computer scientists must work with the economists and the psychologists and any number of other experts in order to address all the aspects of a particular challenge. There also needs to be cooperation and communication between industry, academia, policymakers and consumers.
Take one example: How do you measure energy efficiency? A consistent method doesn’t exist today, said Colette Maloney, head of the European Commission’s ICT for Sustainable Growth unit. To address it, the EU recently launched an initiative bringing ICT companies and sector associations together to discuss how the energy efficiency of their products is measured.
Issue 2: Better models
Another way in which politicians can make sensible policy and companies can make investment decisions is through good and consistent predictive modelling.
Forest modelling, for example, can be of critical importance to a country such as Russia where forestry plays an important role in the economy, according to Microsoft’s Herbert. In Greece, universities are working on models that will be able to predict when and where forest fires may happen, which would allow firefighters to plan their strategy.
Issue 3: Finance
The European Investment Bank’s Juan Alario described financing as an “enabling instrument”. Alario warned, though, that funding must be well targeted and used effectively. To achieve this, information is key, he said. He has criticised the use of some subsidies, saying they were wasted because they were being used on profitable projects.
The EIB has identified cities as a key source for potentially large energy savings and so is trying to develop programmes, for example with Barcelona, to promote energy efficiency. The EIB is keen for the initiatives to be on a large scale.
In the European Union’s recovery plan to address the current economic crisis, three sectors have been identified as crucial for research support: the auto industry, construction and manufacturing. Each has the potential to improve energy efficiency, and a total of €3.2 billion is being invested in them through public-private partnerships.
“It is clear that ICT is an enabling technology in all three areas,” said Waldemar Kütt, deputy chief of staff to the EU Research Commissioner.
Computers can help save, rather than just consume, energy.
Issue 4: Incentives and convenience
Human behaviour is influenced by convenience. The more convenient an appliance or a technology, the greater the likelihood it will catch on with consumers.
Naoko Tojo, from the International Institute for Industrial Environmental Economics at Sweden’s Lund University, points to the need for more user-friendly interfaces to increase convenience. She thinks this is why the uptake of new technology in her native Japan seems much quicker than in Europe.
It is normal in Japan, Tojo said, to have a device for making tea that sets the temperature at 70 or 85 degrees, not an unnecessary 100 degrees.
Few consumers seem to care about saving energy per se. But they do want information about what is available; they do care about saving money; and they do seek convenience. If technology that enables energy efficiency is to be embraced, then computer science must not lose sight of the human aspect and the factors that influence human behaviour.
The way ahead: the Brussels roundtable identified six issues that need to be addressed.
Issue 5: Desktops off
Trying to get people to change their behaviour patterns is not always easy, as Daniel Curtis from the University of Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute knows only too well. He embarked upon a seemingly simple way of saving energy: switching off the university’s desktop computers when they are not in use.
Before this initiative, all the university’s computers were left on 24 hours, enabling programmers to carry out backups, fix bugs or update software. The key to changing this mindset, Curtis said, was to provide staff with the right tools to overcome potential problems. Curtis estimates that the program will save about 5 gigawatt-hours a year, which depending on electricity prices would be annual savings of around half a million pounds.
Microsoft has several projects aimed at reducing the energy use of information technology. One of them is the Somniloquy Project at Microsoft Research in Cambridge, which is focused on putting idle computers into sleep mode and yet still allowing them to respond to requests to the computer over the network.
Issue 6: Computers everywhere
The issue of whether computer science is itself a net contributor or saver of energy also needs to be considered.
The Wireless World Research Forum (WWRF) forecasts there will on average be about 1,000 wireless devices per capita by 2017. The sheer volume is an issue for ICT, said Stephen McLaughlin, Dean of Research at the College of Science and Engineering at the University of Edinburgh, UK. A bank building in London’s Canary Wharf could have, say, 10 million sensors; how do you deal with that amount of information? The systems are extremely complex, and a holistic view must be taken as to how they interact and how they will be used.
Author: Anna Jenkinson