Combating climate change with computers

Computers account for between 2-6% of global CO2 emissions, but can energy-efficient microchips help?
14 October 2014

Interview with 

Dominic Vergine, ARM


Powering computers and the Internet account for between 2 and 6 % of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. That's equivalent to the CO2 output of the entire airline industry. A five-minute video viewed on Youtube also consumes - on aggregate - as much energy as boiling an electric kettle. And, as we become increasingly reliant on computers, for instance as the phenomenon known as the Internet of Things develops and will see 26 billion devices, including even fridges, cars and cookers, coupled up by 2020, what can we do to keep a cap on the associated carbon cost? Dominic Vergine is from microchip makers ARM, who specialise in energy-efficient processing. He explained to Chris Smith what the company is doing to achieve the best processing bang for our energy bucks...

Chris -   How many aspects of our lives are ARM involved in?

Dominic -   Well, the vast majority really, although it's a company that many people haven't heard of.  So, you think you have things like Blu-ray players, digital cameras, 95% of mobile phones, but also things like the majority of air bags, car breaking systems, even things like pacemakers, smart meters, credit cards all have our technology within them.

Chris -   And this is because it has the capacity to save energy in some way.

Dominic -   That's not initially the reason why people are using ARM, but of course, the fact that we are very, very energy efficient is becoming more and more a driver for our business.  So, initially, it was because mobile phones have batteries.  Batteries have to last a long time.  But now, we're creating products like the Cortex-M0 Plus which is smaller than the width of a human hair and can run for 10 years on a single watch battery.  And this kind of technology is going to revolutionise our sensing systems.  And of course, it's sensing systems that can then provide more data and using that data, we can then run everything much more efficiently.

Chris -   This also presumably means that you could put sensors into remote places and just mop up free energy, I say 'free' in inverted commas, but basically waste that's either vibrations on the wind or some heat that's just latently in a piece of building fabric or something to run things.

Dominic -   Well, energy harvesting is part of it.  But really, if you're looking at how we can create a much more efficient world. So computer chips are accredited with achieving about 23% improvement in our energy efficiency that we run everything over the past 30 years.  In essence, that was a by-product, that wasn't deliberate, that just happens to happen.  If you look over the next 30 years, it's becoming much more of a key focus for all the designers of technology.  And so, if we make it a key focus, it's predicted that we might even save as much as 60% of energy between now and 2050.

Chris -   It's a big spend, isn't it?  I mean, if you look at the interview with the guy who currently is in charge of GCHQ, their super computer in the basement of GCHQ burns off more electricity than the nearby town.  You must be a breath of fresh air for them.

Dominic -   So, ARM has just started to design chips to go into servers.  At the moment, a data centre tends to - its carbon emission, it's energy consumption tends to go 50% to the servers themselves and 50% to cooling.  Recent tests on some of our early ARM prototypes have suggested they might run on 1/10th  of the power and require far less cooling.  But certainly, data centres are a big issue.  They're expected to triple between now and 2020. 

Chris -   Why are these chips so inefficient? 

Dominic -   The focus for a very, very long time has been to create a technology that is as powerful as it can be.  So, it's been focused on power rather than on energy efficiency.  But we're getting to a point now where it's arguable whether we really need chips to be more powerful.  They can do the data analysis, they can run social media, they can do the things we want them to do.  So, it's becoming much, much more important that they use less and less energy and that's where ARM comes in.

Chris -   Now, what about the third world. The population estimates were revised a couple of weeks ago by researchers in Canada that we may be looking at a 2050 world population of upwards of 10 billion maybe even 12 billion.  Most of that growth is countries like Africa.  There, you're going to see a very big embracing of this sort of technology and at the moment, in countries like Africa, people would rather go without their lunch, than go without a charge for their mobile phones.  So, you must regard this as a huge opportunity in a massive market.

Dominic -   It's certainly is a huge opportunity.  I mean that in a very good way because I think it's a great opportunity for people in those countries as well.  So, a lot of the discussion earlier in the programme suggests the great damage and the risk that's created by climate change in these countries.  And of course, that means that things like water and food, agriculture, will have to be managed much, much better.  The internet of things isn't just about smart cities and first world problems.  It's also about managing water, agriculture and the growth of food in developing countries.  So, one of the projects we're supporting at the moment with the charity and alongside UNICEF, is a very simple sort of mp3 player that can run on for a year on a local Ghanaian battery and it's filled with local content in the local language, and given to illiterate farmers and illiterate communities to help grow their crops more efficiently.  Initial trials show a 50% improvement in crop yield.  So, very significant.  So, we can use technology to help mitigate some of the issues around climate change - use all our resources more efficiently, manage a global population of 9 or 10 billion people.  And all the forecast suggests that whilst obviously, IT does absorb power, it needs power, it's going to emit carbon.  If used effectively, it can actually - the amount of power used, the amount of carbon emitted - will be significantly less and the savings it can create.

Chris -   Dominic Vergine from ARM, thank you very much indeed. 


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