Greener Gadgets: Are people really saving money with 'green PCs?'

At the Greener Gadgets Expo last week in New York City, executives for Dell and Intel touted a variety of "green" benefits for newer computer processors and laptop screens. But in another session, a product designer took the computer industry for to task for forcing users into frequent and costly replacements of PCs and software, whether for the sake of "green computing" or other reasons.

Processors such as Core 2 Duo that use Core Microarchitecture produce substantial energy savings for customers over the old Pentium 4 CPU, while also reducing carbon footprints, contended Stephen Harper, Intel's director of environment and energy policy.

Remote management software for PCs also benefits the environment, by "allowing me to manage my machine no matter where I'm at," according to Harper.

Michael Murphy, Dell's senior manager of environmental affairs, focused on Dell's move to use LED screens in all of its notebook PCs by 2010. The new screens are 43% more "energy-efficient" than older screens, bringing twice the battery life, according to Murphy.

"Corporations are much more likely to implement [Energy Star]," he told the panel.

But some of the speakers were not convinced that the greener products really result in cost savings for customers. Aaron Dallek, the CTO for Planet Metrics, said that one recent study, conducted in California, actually indicates that customers can save more money by hanging on to older PCs.

The extent to which "green" PCs reduce the carbon footprint isn't exactly clear either, Dallek said. That's because the consumer electronics industry is very complex, with many different suppliers. PC Metrics produces software for calculating software emissions.

"The computer software industry definitely has a lot to answer for," asserted Gadi Amit, founder and principal designer at New Deal Design, speaking later in the day. "Users are a lot more aware there is not a need to update every year."

To some extent, the software industry has been driving the pressures toward buying updated hardware, according to Amit. Software makers such as Adobe keep coming out with new products that increasingly "gobble up" memory and disk space, he elaborated.

But at the same time, today's increasingly "green" regulatory environment is imposing additional expenses on manufacturers, according to Harper. "Our new products are lead-free," he noted.

Intel has already spent "a couple of hundred million dollars" on complying with emerging regulations around lead-free manufacturing. But he also contended that research performed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the University of Tennessee suggests some of the materials being used to replace lead, such as cadmium, might be even more hazardous.

Harper estimated that, as a whole, the computer industry has already spent more than two billion dollars on removing lead from its manufacturing processes.

But for their part, customers aren't always complying with new regulations, anyway, he indicated. Only 11% of US federal agencies are now adhering to the EPEAT standard, which requires agencies to buy energy-efficient, Energy Star-certified PCs, Murphy Harper said.

Harper cited a "culture in IT" toward upgrading every two or three years, in any case. People tend to get tired of "looking at the same old stuff," according to the Intel exec.

Speaking with Betanews during the conference, Harper said that Dell stepped to lead-free manufacturing so as to comply with regulations now adopted in Europe and five US states, including New Jersey and California. The similarity of regulations in Europe and the US, he told us, is making compliance easier for manufacturers.

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