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Are Smarter Gadgets Really Good for the Planet?

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RFID_midnightcommWith the explosion of low-cost chips, from Intel’s Atom processor to low-power Wi-Fi sensors, just about everything is “getting smart” these days. There are known environmental benefits to this kind of cheap-and-easy digital intelligence, many of them heavily promoted by IBM as part of its “Smarter Planet” initiative. There’s the smart grid, of course, which adds data-rich intelligence to the energy system, but there’s also smart water, smart transportation (including rail, electric vehicles and traffic), and even smart garbage. It’s what Intel regularly describes as the “2 Percent, 98 Percent” rule — that operating IT contributes some 2 percent of global carbon emissions, but IT can be used to minimize the other 98 percent.

But there’s a slightly brownish tinge to all this greener-through-IT talk. The widely cited 2 percent figure only looks at the energy impacts of IT equipment as it’s being operated, not as it’s being manufactured. That’s what’s known as embedded, or embodied, energy. And depending on who you ask, manufacturing can be a major piece of the puzzle — between 75 and 85 percent, according to some research. In 2005, the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, an environmental watchdog group for the high-tech industry, estimated that a single fab could consume as much energy as a 60,000-person city. Which begs the question: Will semiconductor manufacturing outweigh the environmental benefits of the “smarter planet”?

Much of the available research on life-cycle impacts of chip manufacturing has been done by Eric Williams, an assistant professor at the Arizona State University’s Department of Civil, Environmental and Sustainable Engineering, and while his results have resonated with some in the environmental community, industry players say the impacts might be overstated. Intel Global Corporate Environmental Manager Todd Brady doesn’t mince words: “Our data indicates much the opposite,” he says. “Ninety percent of the footprint is as the product is used.”

Part of the issue Intel has with Williams’ research is that it looked at a DRAM memory chip, which Brady says isn’t a power-hog piece of silicon, especially compared to the sort of powerful microprocessors Intel’s churning out. According to Brady, manufacturing isn’t the most critical piece of the environmental puzzle for Intel’s chips — improving the efficiency on the end-user side is. Still, Brady says Intel continues to improve its manufacturing system, in terms of energy reduction, water user reduction and waste reduction (PDF). “Every time we do a new product, we establish environmental goals around our energy use, our water user, waste generated,” he says. “That goal is part of our target for delivering that new technology.”

But let’s go back to Williams’ data. In one study, published in 2002, he found that every gram of microchip produced required 630 grams of fossil fuels. That’s a lot of embedded energy. (Williams compares it, for example, to the 2 grams of fossil fuels needed to produce 1 gram of an automobile.) As chips proliferate, they’re being used in increasingly “disposable” applications. We’ve already seen this to some extent, with disposable “smart Band-Aids” and the RFID tags used in inventory control (tucked into the books at Borders, for example).

But as heavier-duty chips like microprocessors come down in size and price, we’re likely to see more of these smarter objects with short life spans, many of which will (cl)aim to help solve environmental issues.

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One Response to “Are Smarter Gadgets Really Good for the Planet?”

  1. Tim Peterson

    Excellent article. It is very important we understand and measure these costs… I did not know the term embodied-embedded energy… but have been talking about it for years. (are electric cars really such a good idea?) Thanks for getting it out there.

    Suggestion for next article… I read but have NOT CONFIRMED with other sources that the top 15 container ships pollute more than all the cars on earth. So take off your shoes and check it out… how much “transportation energy” is embedded in those Birkenstocks? Better yet, if you live in Boston, the government will give you money to buy an efficient refrigerator made in Asia, and shipped via container ship, rail, truck, and then final delivery truck (which also has to take my old fridge away…) What are the net carbon emissions? Will they ever make up for my old inefficient refrigerator? And when the old frig finally fails and I need a new one… should I not receive more money from the government for buying a refrigerator made in Hackensack rather than Hong Kong?