It's the eve before Interop here in Las Vegas and we've just wrapped up Energy Camp where, as can be seen from the user-decided agenda, the conversation went deep and wide on a variety of subjects related to the reduction of information technology's carbon footprint. Two key takeaways for me were (1) many so-called "green" remedies have a dark enough side to them that they may not be as green as we think they are, and (2) it may take another 15 or 20 years before we have it all sorted out. It's not as bad as it sounds, but ...... there's a lot of work to be done, much of it in the area of more thoroughly and honestly measuring how green something is, end-to-end.
For example, I recently created a page on the Energy Camp wiki about the idea of recycling those energy-saving light bulbs that any of us can pick up at the local hardware store. The problem is that when those bulbs are spent, most of us do with them what we do with regular incandescent bulbs: We toss them out. Earlier today at Energy Camp, when I asked from the main stage how many people recycle those bulbs -- officially known as compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) -- only one hand went up. Just moments before asking that question, most people in the room raised their hand when I asked how many people use the bulbs.
Yes. CFLs save a significant amount of energy over their incandescent cousins. But that's only part of the story. So long as the majority of them (and the mercury contained within) are ending up in a landfill somewhere, are they really green? This is what I mean by end-to-end. CFLs are a supposedly green solution. But end-to-end, from production through usage to disposal, are they really green?
Here at Energy Camp, Microsoft senior standards program manager SW Worth led a discussion on green storage. A huge range of issues were covered in the discussion, including the impact that compression can have on helping to manage the utilization of storage. Utilization of anything is a major-league green issue. The less of anything you waste, the more green you supposedly are.
But, whereas compression makes sense with tape drives and enterprise-class drives that might have compression silicon on board, what about PCs, where a lot of the work to compress/decompress becomes the responsibility of the microprocessor that must bypass any energy efficiencies to retrieve or store some data in real time? The technology is theoretically green. But realistically, when implemented, is the net result green?
Recycling systems by sending them to developing nations came up at Energy Camp today. From a green point of view (I'm ignoring the benefit of an old, tired PC to someone in a developing nation), the idea essentially keeps PCs from ending up in landfills. It sounds good at first. But, after such a PC is boxed up, sent on a plane, and shipped to its final destination, what of the Earth's resources expired in the process?
These are simple end-to-end remedies where the downsides are easy to visualize. In the end, they may prove to be green. But have they been proven green yet? In some cases, perhaps. Others not. Where things get really tricky is where the end-to-end system has many more nooks and crannies, any of which are capable of trapping the color green.
Pick your green solution of the day. There's more to it than meets the eye. Like the human genome project, pretty much anything that promises to be green will be fully decoded and we'll know for certain exactly how green it is. But not only is that going to take a lot of time, it's going to take some seriously dedicated people.