Four ways to reduce your PC's carbon footprint

They're far from your most energy-hungry appliance, but limiting the amount of power your PC consumes saves more than money.

Dennis O'Reilly Former CNET contributor
Dennis O'Reilly began writing about workplace technology as an editor for Ziff-Davis' Computer Select, back when CDs were new-fangled, and IBM's PC XT was wowing the crowds at Comdex. He spent more than seven years running PC World's award-winning Here's How section, beginning in 2000. O'Reilly has written about everything from web search to PC security to Microsoft Excel customizations. Along with designing, building, and managing several different web sites, Dennis created the Travel Reference Library, a database of travel guidebook reviews that was converted to the web in 1996 and operated through 2000.
Dennis O'Reilly
3 min read

Roughly speaking, powering a desktop PC with a 17-inch LCD 8 hours a day, 20 days a month costs about $35 a year. That's according to the energy-use calculator on Michael Bluejay's Saving Electricity site.

The same site indicates that computers and electronics represent less than 10 percent of the average energy bill in the U.S. That's about the same amount we spend to power our refrigerators and a third of what the typical home pays for heating.

But if you're looking to reduce your carbon footprint along with your electric bill, minimizing your computer's power consumption can make a difference. Here are four steps you can take to use less power.

Adjust Windows' power plans
You probably set your PC to go into standby, sleep, or hibernate mode after a period of inactivity (please tell me you don't still use a screensaver). In March 2008, I described how to customize Vista's power plans and XP's power schemes. Greg Schultz of Tech Republic examines the new feature in Windows 7's PowerCfg command-line utility that analyzes your current power plan and spots problem areas.

Turn your PC and monitor off completely
It's true that Windows' various power-down states save almost as much energy as pulling the plug entirely, but that little trickle of electricity drain adds up quickly. According to Penn Computing's estimate of PC power use, the machines are draining a watt or more of power when they're off and plugged in.

Many organizations with huge PC networks have been paying attention to these numbers and have invested in sophisticated power-management systems for all their office equipment. Networked PCs may need to be activated remotely to apply patches and perform other maintenance tasks. But for most home computers, there's no need for them to be left in standby—or even to be plugged in when they're not in use.

Take the hardware approach to power conservation
TrickleStar sells products designed to turn off your PC's peripherals when you turn the machine itself off. This might be a great way to save energy, but according to Gizmos for Geeks' review, it could take as long as 12 years for the device to pay for itself in lower energy bills.

Hang on to your old machine a while longer
As netbooks become more popular, I can't help but think we've entered the age of the disposable computer. And that's not good. It takes a lot of energy to build and deliver a new PC. And while Windows 7 has convinced a great number of people that the time is right for a new system, that old one has to end up somewhere—perhaps in an unregulated landfill in Asia.

It's true that dumping your CRT in favor of an LCD will reduce your monthly electric bill, but be sure to dispose of your old equipment responsibly. Last March, I discussed the pros and cons of recycling vs. donating your old PC.

Tools help you save energy around the house
Since your computers and other electronics equipment represent less than a tenth of your overall energy consumption, you might be wondering how you can minimize the other 90 percent. The Environmental Protection Agency's Climate Change site lists energy-saving tips for home owners, travelers, office workers, and schools. The site also features a Household Emissions Calculator.

Enter information from your gas, electric, and other utility bills to find your estimated annual CO2 consumption. Then find out how much CO2 you can conserve by driving less, washing your clothes in cold water instead of hot, and taking other energy-saving measures.

With or without the money savings, using less has got to be good.