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Sustainable Computing: First Thoughts

Sustainable Computing: First Thoughts

Written by Anne Herrington & Charlie Moran
February 02, 2012

The following has been adapted from a Foreword written by Charlie Moran and published in Technological Ecologies and Sustainability. Eds. Heidi McKee and Danielle DeVoss. CCDigitalPress, May 2009.

How can our writing programs use digital technologies in a way that contributes to a sustainable world? 

According to Tim Pawlenty, chair of the National Governors Association, “The average desktop PC currently wastes half of the power it receives.” Pawlenty and his association argue that state offices could and should reduce their energy expenditures on IT by half (U.S. Department of Energy, 2007). By extension, writing programs should do the same. When in 1985 we brought in our first computer-equipped writing classrooms at my university, we had to have air conditioning installed in the rooms to cope with the heat generated by the computers. The air conditioners are still there, and the computers too–newer, much more powerful, consuming more power, generating more heat that needs to be ‘cooled’ with still more power. Not, in world-terms, a sustainable practice.

A globally-sustainable writing program would begin by installing energy-efficient computers, perhaps moving to laptop classrooms, because laptops use less power than desktops. It would lobby its home institution to follow Stanford University’s lead and establish a Sustainable IT Working Group to do an energy-use analysis of all IT services and make recommendations for changes in equipment, software, and user-behavior that would reduce energy consumption–and, at least in Stanford’s situation, potentially save $400,000/year (Dedrick, 2008). But a sustainable writing program would need to go much further than this–and here’s where things get interesting. We tend to assume, or at least I and my friends, acquaintances, and colleagues do, that the online world is somehow ‘free’. But it is not. Online banking, for example, uses and transports much less paper than check-based banking did. So one could argue that there have been energy savings in the use and transport of paper. Yet banks need to operate or lease the tremendous server capacity that is required by their online systems. Servers, just like our desktops, use in the aggregate huge amounts of energy, some of which generates waste heat, which then has to be removed by some form of cooling, usually air conditioners powered by electricity.

So every online transaction–think credit/debit-card use–costs our environment something. And so does every online search, whether for the best deal on a pair of socks or information that I need if I am to write this Foreword. As I have worked toward the completion of this Foreword I have done dozens of Google searches. An amazing capability, really–I’ve found sources that I’d never been able to find in our paper library, however beautifully indexed. As I was searching, I found a Business Week article by Manfred Dworschak, titled “Server Farms As Polluting As Air Traffic.” In this article, the author estimates that a single Google search consumes enough electricity to light an 11-watt flourescent bulb for an hour (2008, p. 2). By that calculus, in searching the internet for the purposes of this Foreword I have used at least 200 watt-hours, which, the power meter on my bicycle tells me, would take me over an hour to generate, pushing as hard as I can.

To make our online searches possible, Google operates and leases vast server farms located throughout the world. The server farms generate waste heat which then needs to be ‘cooled,’ or, rather, removed from the computers and added to our already-warming world.  Google is now building a new server farm–with four-story cooling towers–in Oregon close to the Dalles Dam, so that it can get all the power it needs and (smart move) claim that its tremendous energy-drain comes substantially from renewable resources (the Columbia River’s water power).  Some of the waste heat will be vented into the atmosphere via the cooling towers and the remainder returned to the Columbia River, warming the lower reaches of the river and further altering its ecology. After giving us the detail,  Dworschak writes, “The[se] numbers reveal that the sheer, disembodied lightness of the data world is nothing but a pretty illusion. In fact, it is a world built on real world data processing factories that, when it comes to power consumption, are reminiscent of the early days of industrialization. Computing with electrons is just as physical as the melting of steel or rolling of sheet metal. In both cases, no one cared much about resource consumption during the early phases”(2). 

That’s brutal. How shall writing programs respond? Are there ways in which we can help our students understand the costs, as well as the benefits, of their online research? Paper libraries have an environmental cost as well, a cost that we did not consider when we assigned documented essays and sent our first-year students off on their library tours. But online searches take so much less effort and personal investment: no walk to the building, perhaps late at night; no dog-eared card file; no uncomfortable chairs and poor lighting. And one can search so easily and quickly for anything–friends and clothing as well as information needed for a project. There seems to be no cost, no limit, but there is. There’s an agenda for the next decade: an understanding of the environmental costs and benefits of computer technologies insofar as they apply to our work as teachers of the new writing; and, based on this understanding, determining our appropriate response.  


Dedrick, Allison, “Big Fix Supplement Shoots for Sustainability.” Stanford Daily News, February 8, 2008. Accessed October 10, 2008 at

Dworschak,  Manfred (2008).  “Server Farms As Polluting As Air Traffic.” Business Week, March 31, 2008. Accessed October 11 2008 at

U.S. Department of Energy (2007).  “Governors Association to Encourage Use of Energy-Efficient Computers.” Accessed October 11 2008 at

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