The Power Of Green: Demand For Energy-Efficient PCs Grows

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For custom system builders who were early adopters of energy-efficiency standards, there's been no looking back. "'Green PC technology' is a huge buzz term in people's purchasing decisions," said Todd Swank, marketing vice president at Northern Computing Technologies (Nor-Tech), a Burnsville, Minn., custom system builder that sells energy-efficient desktop computers and servers. "We were pretty early to the table with these."

System builders say 2007 was a break-out year for sales of PCs and servers that use power supplies that met the 80 Plus energy-efficiency standard. Approximately 400,000 desktop systems alone that incorporate 80 Plus-certified power supplies have shipped, according to Ecos Consulting, the Portland, Ore.-based consulting firm that administers the 80 Plus program.

"We saw a really big [sales] spike in 2007," said Jason Boehlke, channel program manager at Ecos Consulting. But he added that the adoption rate of 80 Plus systems is still only in the 3 to 5 percent range.

All signs point to that momentum continuing through this year and beyond. Demand for energy-efficient PCs for use in homes and small businesses is sure to rise: Residential prices for electricity are expected to increase 2.7 percent this year and 3.1 percent in 2009, predicts the Energy Information Administration, the statistical and analytical agency within the U.S. Department of Energy. And in January, market researcher Gartner Inc., Stamford, Conn., issued a report predicting that by next year more than 30 percent of all IT organizations will have some form of environmental requirement in their top six IT purchasing criteria.

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"It's just a growing awareness of energy costs across the board," said Susan Labandibar, president of Tech Networks of Boston, a system builder and consulting service provider, of the key driver for energy-efficient computers. Tech Networks of Boston assembles the Earth line of PCs and servers it sells to small businesses and nonprofit organizations.

Two or three years ago, most custom systems ran at 60 to 70 percent efficiency in their electricity usage and few buyers paid much attention to such statistics. The 80 Plus initiative was launched in 2005 by Ecos Consulting and a dozen electric utilities to encourage system manufacturers to use 80 Plus-certified power supplies that operate at 80 percent efficiency at workloads of 20, 50 and 100 percent.

Last July, the 80 Plus specification became part of the EPA's Energy Star 4.0 energy efficiency guidelines. Today, some 600 power supply products have been certified as meeting the efficiency standard and the 80 Plus organization maintains a list of some 75 power-supply manufacturers ( whose products have been certified. In April, Fremont, Calif.-based Corsair Inc., for example, said its entire line of power-supply products had been certified to meet the 80 Plus requirements.

Next: EarthWatts

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When power-supply manufacturer Antec Inc., Fremont, Calif., introduced its highly efficient EarthWatts product line a couple of years ago, it was a slow seller. But sales of energy-efficient power supplies increased dramatically in 2007. "Last year was the year that green computing slipped into the consciousness of system builders," said Scott Richards, senior vice president, in a recent interview. Today, many of Antec's products are 80 Plus certified, including the EarthWatts and TruePower Quattro lines.

"We made a conscious decision to standardize almost all of our systems on 80 Plus power supplies," said Mike Ferguson, director of product development and purchasing at Seanix Technology Inc., a Richmond, British Columbia-based system builder that advertises itself as "The green choice." Seanix sells its desktop computers and servers through some 200 resellers across Canada.

System builders said they have had no problems in getting adequate supplies of 80 Plus-certified power supply systems.

The increasing cost of electricity not only raises the costs of running a PC or server, but inefficient computers add to cooling costs when multiple systems are running in a data center or other enclosed area. And the high-powered, graphics-intensive systems assembled by many custom system builders today can be real energy hogs.

Ecos Consulting estimates that PCs that incorporate 80 Plus-certified power supplies and other components can save $19 to $20 per year in electricity costs and, on average, $70 over the life of the system. Ferguson at Seanix says the savings can be $20 to $30 per year. "For a business, the money you can save over a year and over the lifetime of a PC can be enormous," he said.

"Of course, there is a cost premium for PCs with better performing, more efficient power supplies," said Ecos Consulting's Boehlke. Power supplies and other components that are 80 Plus-certified are generally high quality and more reliable—and consequently more expensive. Ecos Consulting calculates that 80 Plus-certified power supplies add between $8 and $22 to the cost of a new system.

Energy-efficient power supplies, for example, generate less heat. "And obviously heat leads to bad things," said Nor-Tech's Swank, noting that heat can shorten a computer's lifespan. "We could probably save [as much as] 50 percent on our power supplies if we didn't buy 'green.'"

But Nor-Tech, Seanix and most other system builders are competing on quality and reliability, not price. So assembling systems that incorporate 80 Plus-certified components is a natural for them. Nevertheless, using funding from its 14 utility company backers, the 80 Plus organization continues to offer manufacturers rebates of $5 and $10 for desktop computers and servers, respectively, to help cover the higher costs.

Still, there will always be some customers that demand the lowest-priced PCs and servers, Swank acknowledged. The challenge for the system builder, he said, is to educate resellers and customers about the reliability and energy-efficiency benefits of an 80 Plus-compliant system—even if it means paying a little more up front.

So what's next for the energy-efficient computer movement? The 80 Plus organization recently expanded the original 80 percent efficiency threshold to include 80 Plus Bronze, Silver and Gold categories with efficiency ratings that range from 82 percent at a 20 percent load factor up to 90 percent at a 50 percent load factor.

In addition to the hundreds of power supply systems that comply with the original 80 Plus specifications, the Web site currently lists 43 power supply products that meet the bronze standard, and one—from Eindhoven, Netherlands-based NXP Semiconductors—that's earned the silver certification. None have yet been certified gold. "We're thrilled with those that can reach bronze right now," Boehlke said. "Gold is a stretch. And it's supposed to be a stretch."

Seanix's Ferguson said power supply technology for boosting PC and server efficiency to 90 percent is still being developed and tested. He estimated that it will be between 18 and 24 months before those products become a real option for custom system manufacturers.