The Top Green Computing Stories of 2008

The Top Green Computing Stories of 2008

[Editor's Note: This article has been slightly edited to correct the name of the Government Accountability Office, which is no longer called the General Accounting Office.]

As with just about everything we cover at GreenBiz.com and our sister sites, 2008 was a wild year for green: as the calendar pages turned, the daily news went from a sort of business as usual in terms of green goals and commitments from companies to a sense of increased foreboding and gloom-and-doom predictions for the coming months.

However, our current economic crisis actually bodes better for green IT than just about any other sector, and at least some of our five biggest stories this year nicely illustrate just how key to the growth of green the idea of cost savings can be. As Executive Editor Preston Gralla wrote in a blog post earlier this month, the economic meltdown may end up being green IT's best friend.

Before we go any further, let me say that, as I looked through all of our coverage on GreenerComputing.com from 2008, what leaped out at me was not so much Five Big Stories as the five trends or ideas that most exemplify what happened in the computing world this past year. And so, without further ado, the list of Top Stories from 2008:

• Green Design Hits the Prime Time
• E-Waste: End of Life Takes On a Life of Its Own
• Companies Recognize the Growing Power of Energy Management
• Data Centers Get Continually Greener
• IT as a Solution to Our Biggest Environmental Problems

Green Design Hits the Prime Time

From chips to shells, monitors to power supplies, over the course of 2008 we saw companies announcing and implementing goals to lighten the impact of all types of computer electronics.

A good thumbnail sketch of what companies are doing with the design of their products is available in the Consumer Electronics Association's first industry-wide sustainability report. Among the highlights are companies developing more energy-efficient products, using recycled and easily recyclable materials to build their machines, and cutting back on materials used for packaging.

As with so much in the world of electronics, news from Apple's headquarters in Cupertino, Calif., earned a possibly disproportional share of attention. In October, the company announced that new MacBook laptops would be 30 percent more energy efficient, use fewer harmful materials, less packaging, and meet two of the gold standards of green computing: the Energy Star 4.0 certification and EPEAT's gold-level rating.

Apple was far from the only company to make such announcements: Dell continued its goal to be the greenest electronics company around, adding LED displays, energy efficient computers and power-supplies to its ongoing list of green initiatives, and a Dell vice president lashed out at Apple for what he perceives as a lack of sincerity behind Apple's green claims.

Green computing certification plans continued to grow this year as well; the venerable Energy Star rating from the U.S. EPA got within striking distance of launching a category for servers (the Energy Star label currenly only covers desktops, laptops and monitors on the computing front), and the EPA continued work on developing an Energy Star rating for entire data centers. Meanwhile, the Green Electronics Council's EPEAT rating system hit the 1000th product certified earlier this year, a Sony Vaio laptop that scored a Gold-level rating.

Another notable launch in green-design certification schemes this year was the E.U.'s first E.U. Flower Eco Award for computing; the award went to ASUS for four of its green laptops. And in the also-ran category is Fujitsu Siemens, which decided that none of the labels on the market were strict enough for its standards, so it launched its own.

One of the key elements of a green computer plays into our next big trend: most of the certification schemes take into account both the toxic chemicals that are often used to build computers and how easy and safely they can be recycled when they're no longer useful. And as we saw especially in the last half of the year, e-waste became a big deal over the course of 2008.

Next: Dealing with the E-Waste Problem

Athlon chip photo CC-licensed by Flickr user rodrigo senna.

E-Waste: End of Life Takes On a Life of Its Own

Electronic waste really started to become big news in mid-September, although it had been building over the course of the year. On September 18, the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, released a report calling the EPA on the carpet for what amounts to a total failure to regulate electronic waste, especially that waste that gets sent overseas to be melted down and harvested in some of the most toxic ways imaginable.

What happened in the weeks that followed was a veritable landslide of news about the dangers of electronic waste and the ways that companies are getting ahead of the risk and choosing the greenest and most responsible paths possible.

In early October, two of the world's biggest e-waste NGOs, the Electronics TakeBack Coalition and the Basel Action Network, pulled out of long-running talks around developing e-waste recycling guidelines with the EPA. Citing a failure to address the biggest issues around e-waste disposal, the groups bailed on the Responsible Recycling Practices for Electronics Recyclers committee, leaving only industry and governmental groups left to finish the job. The EPA launched the R2 guidelines, as they're commonly known, without the NGOs support, and both BAN and Electronics TakeBack took part instead in a new e-Stewards group that fulfills the NGOs goals of forbidding the incineration of e-waste, forbidding exporting or sending to prisons e-waste for recycling.

Soon after the recycling schism occurred, the CBS news program 60 minutes unveiled an exposé of e-waste recycling practices that sent earthquakes through the industry. Although the segment only criticized one company's handing of its e-waste, the larger effect of the story was to highlight just how bad the conditions are for people working in and living around developing-world electronics recycling plants -- not just in China, where the 60 minutes reporters focused, but also in Africa and other developing countries that handle waste from the U.S. and Europe.

The e-waste news wasn't all gloom and doom in 2008; in addition to the launch of the e-Stewards group, manufacturer LG teamed up with Waste Management to open over 160 recycling centers across the country, and Panasonic, Sharp and Toshiba also banded together to handle electronic waste.

Much of the change that happened over the course of the year was due to pressure from activist groups, as Mary Catherine O'Connor reported in November. Foremost among them are the aforementioned BAN and Electronics TakeBack Coalition, but much credit is also due to Greenpeace, whose quarterly electronics scorecard has had significant success in turning public attention to just how green those gadgets we buy and work on can be.

And along the lines of greening the gadgets we already own, our next big trend of 2008 looks at one of the easiest ways companies found to save big bucks from the computers they already own.

Next: Energy Management Comes Into Its Own Companies Recognize the Growing Power of Energy Management

It turns out that just about every company is sitting on a massive gold mine: thousands and in some cases millions of dollars of energy savings that can be harvested by either installing or simply activating power-management controls on their fleet of desktops and laptops.

In its first-ever CSR report, software company Symantec will save as much as $800,000 a year by setting up power-management software that turns off employee computers that are left on overnight and on weekends.

On an even bigger scale, AT&T announced a new strategy covering 310,000 computers, and could save over $13 million a year once the program is in place.

AT&T used a software program called Nightwatchman from British company 1E; another program unveiled this year is a new, free utility called Edison, developed by Seattle-based Verdiem, and promoted in partnership with Microsoft. Edison is a free version of Verdiem's Surveyor power management software, and the company projects that if it can get Edison installed on 1 percent of the world's PCs, it can cut back global emissions by the same amount as taking half a million cars off the road.

Another software program, BigFix, got a boost from growing awareness of the benefits of power management. In August, the federal government's General Services Administration announced a plan to add the power management program to 15,000 laptops and desktops as part of a green procurement program.

Desktops and laptops are one of two key power-suckers in corporate IT departments. The other, data center facilities, were also the focus of major investments and strategies from corporations.

Data Centers Get Continually Greener

Making data centers perform more efficiently is nothing new -- we've been covering green data centers since we launched GreenerComputing.com in 2007. But in the wake of a global recession, new awareness of the extent to which data centers are responsible for global greenhouse gas emissions, and new research finding that as many as two-thirds of all data centers may face critical power shortages in the next two years, greening the data center becomes all the more urgent.

In addition to notable achievements like the first LEED-Platinum certified green data center, California'based company NetApp highlighted the potential benefits of building green when it received a $1.4 million rebate from Pacific Gas & Electric's program to build green facilities of all types.

The past year found no shortage of new tips from major players on the best ways to cut costs and boost efficiency in data centers. In May, IBM unveiled a suite of data center energy management tools and a new alliance aimed at spreading the word about data center efficiency. A July report from Accenture offered 17 case studies of ways companies are incorporating green practices into their data centers. And both Microsoft and the Uptime Institute's Kenneth Brill offered tips for maximizing data center efficiency.

Finally, two large-scale solutions for data centers emerged this year: the Green Grid coalition unveiled its goals for a miles-per-gallon measure for data center efficiency, and the European Commission published a code of conduct for green data center best practices.

But overall, this year's trend that promises to have the biggest impact both on the IT industry and the global environment as a whole is our final trend:

IT as a Solution to Our Biggest Environmental Problems

Addressing data center energy efficiency solves two problems at once: in addition to cutting down costs dramatically, it also brings down greenhouse gas emissions generated by power plants. But the IT industry as a whole and leading players took their work to the next level in 2008, offering not just ways for companies to limit their emissions, but a handful of reports showed ways that IT can transform the global economy to achieve the emissions goals needed to prevent the worst of climate change's effects.

From enabling building energy controls to providing technology for smart power grids, computing technology has the ability to cut global emissions by significant amounts; the Smart 2020 report from the Climate Group and Boston Consulting found IT can trim emissions by 22 percent within the United States alone. At the same time, the European Union announced a plan to promote information technologies as a tool to cut emissions across the board.

Tangentially, GreenBiz.com was proud to partner with IBM this year to publish its concept paper for an organization that can harness computing power to efficiently manage global water use. (You can read more and download the paper on GreenBiz.com.)

And that, in somewhat more than a nutshell, is 2008 in green IT. What does 2009 bring? Executive Editor Preston Gralla will offer up his predictions for 2009 tomorrow on GreenerComputing.com.
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