Kate Mackenzie Obligatory iPad-emissions post

CNet’s Martin LaMonica tries to find an ‘eco-angle’ to Apple’s iPad, and discovers there are a few pluses and minuses, and as with many efficiency questions, it depends partly on the end user.

Part of it is the dead trees vs electronics debate – saving trees is good, but then there are the chemicals and the energy use to consider. The short lifespan of most electronic devices is of particular concern in terms of pollutants.

On energy use, the ‘E Ink’ technology compares well with LCD screens. There’s a lot more to energy use, however:

But looking at how much energy a device consumes when in the hands of the end user isn’t the full story, notes Casey Harrell, a coordinator for Greenpeace’s global electronics campaign. About half of the energy “embedded” in an electronics product comes from the supply chain of companies that supply Apple or other manufacturers, he said.

What’s more, as more and more smartphones and tablets are released, the energy consumption shifts toward data centers to which those gadgets connect. “A tablet can certainly mark a decrease in the environmental footprint versus traditional printing, but the big question is, what energy is powering these data centers in the cloud?” Harrell said.

On the subject of the rise of cloud computing, in which the iPad is just another incremental development, we’ve yet to see a really detailed study specifically of cloud versus local computing (yes, links are welcome!) that addresses its relative merits.

On the one hand, concentrating millions of computational processes together in one place could provide opportunities for various efficiency measures; and for locating consumption near renewable sources. And when Google and the other internet giants have to consume vast amounts of energy in their massive data centres, it’s safe to assume they work damn hard to do it efficiently, and in some cases this means using river systems for cooling, for example. On the other hand, the cooling requirements are substantial when all that gear is in packed in together, and there’s also the energy cost of transmission – and the fact all this amazing technology means that we just do more stuff that uses electricity.

In an MIT Technology Review article, Jonathan Koomey from Yale University says that downloading a CD’s worth of music is 40 – 80 per cent more efficient than creating and acquiring a physical CD. Yet an analyst quoted on LowCarbonEconomy.com points out that while the potential appears to be there, cloud providers haven’t actually proven that they are more energy efficiency than in-house IT systems.

Related links:

The internet, energy and the Columbia River (FT Energy Source, 12/05/10)
Mixed reviews for the iPad (FT Tech Blog, 27/01/10)