computers suck

So computers are everywhere. In our watches, our cookers, our cars, and, I suspect, in quite a few people at my office. Have you ever thought about how much energy they use? When you sit at your office laptop, innocently twittering about the difficulties of applying your own toenail polish or doing furtive searches for   egg-and-dairy-free childrens party cakes it all seems to work on air and pixie dust, not vast server farms churning away in unmarked industrial units. (In fact, the very first search software bots were called angels, precisely because they seemed to work pretty much like those notoriously low-carbon messengers of the almighty.)

But the reality is sadly otherwise.The average British data centre, or computer room to you, uses more energy than a city as big as Leicester. Data centres use about one per cent of all the electricity in the world, mostly just to keep cool.

And, sadly, there’s often an inverse relation between size and energy use, which means the tiny little mobile phone you’ve substituted for the brick you held to your ear ten years ago, uses tons more energy, not less.

Partly because you don’t just talk on it. Talk as we know, is cheap. A 3g iPhone streaming video in real time from the Web, is not.

Even the software that ensures you pay for downloads uses tons of power. And that’s just in the player itself, not counting the server farms. Though, to put the other case, somebody has just discovered that downloading is more energy efficient than going to buy a CD – but only if you drive to the store (this is American research, naturally), and don’t burn your own CD…

But we all love our computers. You could say we’re attached to them. None of which is great if we’re trying to reduce, not increase, energy consumption.

Perhaps it’s as well that the giant companies also have giant energy bills, because they now have good reason to try to cut them. Not just with low management tricks like more efficiency but with ever more wild and freaky notions. For instance, Yahoo now has a data centre powered by the waters of Niagara.

Meanwhile Google, which will tell you about anything at all except itself, is estimated to have  450000 servers racked up in data centres round the world, already has one powered by – wait for it – the local weather 

 Meanwhile Miscrosoft is pondering a mvoe to Siberia (bring it on, I say, and not just the data centres) and Sun Microsystems to disused underground coal mines. The thinking being, as most of the energy is used keeping the damn machines cold, why not just put them somewhere where it’s really cold already? 

Google is also America’s biggest investor in geothermal energy which is good because if they can find a way to turn the heat in the earth into energy without losing it all on the way up, we could all benefit.

But with a bit of creativity, you can find energy in all kinds of places. The dance-powered  nightclubs been around for ages – but how about the revolving door powered air conditioner? You can even get power from putting holes in a type face.

And best of all, it seems we can now power our toys just by fidgeting. (Not sure whether they’ve done the energy equations here: how many calories would you burn fidgeting your way through a Lady Gaga video?)

In California, where they have a lot more solar power than we do to play with (specially this year, alas), there are solar-collecting windows that can even be bulletproofed for the paranoid environmentalist (and let’s face it, which of us isn’t?) The very asphalt on those mega freeways and giant parking lots, a ready-made heat sink, is being hooked up via water pipes to heat things and cool things. There are even 21st century stained glass windows that can harvest the  sun.

But all of this is still in the experimental stage. Meanwhile every time you Twit, text or send somebody a picture of the underside of your tongue, you’re using energy that could save a life. The best reason yet to ban Stephen Fry?