HP Labs: Measuring lifetime energy use

Tell him there is measure in every thing
and so dance out the answer.

Shakespeare – Much Ado About Nothing

Hidden deep inside the HP Labs website on innovations for the environment which I profiled yesterday, is an important research theme for assessing the total environmental impact of technology on our planet.

Work being headed up by Chandrakant Patel on lifetime energy use introduces a new measure of environmental impact.

It can be argued that the environmental debate which is currently being conducted in terms of carbon emissions and carbon trading contain anomalies that limit full awareness of the impact of technology on the world in which we live.

Crushed Cars It’s like figuring out the cost of running your car by only counting what you spend on petrol. As any motorist knows, there’s also the cost of repairs, insurance, depreciation and so on. From the day you drive your new car off the lot until the moment it is crushed and recycled there’s a total cost of ownership associated with running a vehicle. A savvy owner would want an accounting of this and not be satisfied with measuring one factor while ignoring others.

Just so, the concept of exergy allows engineers and policy makers a measure for performing accurate environmental accounting. Exergy-cost analyses evaluates the impact of human activity on the current natural environment and measures the overall environmental sustainability of different products: whether it’s a plastic drinks bottle or a supercomputer.

To attain true sustainability, it’s not enough to simply consider costs of powering, cooling and operating IT. It’s essential to take a ‘cradle to cradle’ approach, taking into account IT’s entire lifecycle – from the raw materials extracted to build the machine to its manufacturing and to its recycling and potential reuse.

HP Labs is working with the University of California at Berkeley to build a tool called the Lifetime Exergy Advisor, which would assess the total environmental impact (from extraction to shipping to operation and recycling) of using different types of materials (or different combinations of materials), different processes, operational or reclamation techniques.

Patel’s novel framework is based on the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics and aims to drive the deconstruction of existing value chains with high resource costs and replace them with net-positive end-to-end IT solutions.

This research moves the focus on Green IT solutions beyond the level of anecdotes and into the realm of rigorous analysis.

Chandrakant Patel “In the future, we will end up judging IT decisions based on the pool of available energy resources that we are depleting from the ground,” Patel says.

Technically speaking, this is the second law of thermodynamics, which says that although using a resource (e.g., burning coal) does not result in destruction of energy, it does destroy its available energy – that is, its ability to do useful work.

Such available energy is often called exergy and the unit in which it is measured is a joule.

“In a flat world,? suggests Patel, “the only currency is going to be joules – not yuans, not rupees, not dollars. What we want to do in our future research is to look at the entire IT ecosystem from end to end and quantify the available energy destroyed.”

This is a potentially game-changing way of looking at the environmental impact of IT.

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Dr. Patel’s vision can clearly be extended to human beings…cradle to grave, how we educate one another and the place HP wants to play in this process.

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