Baby steps at the Capitol

I consider myself a relatively earth-friendly sort. I drive 55 mph. I don’t pour my used motor oil down the storm drain… anymore. I shut the TVs off in the newsroom when I leave. I try to do my part, without deluding myself into attributing more impact to my actions than reality suggests.

So it’s difficult for me to watch how being “green” has become good business and good politics, especially those cases where “baby steps” are paraded as significant steps. Take the NBC-Universal “green week” this week. Color your logo green for a week, throw a couple of B-grade actors on every half hour for 30 seconds to tell you to turn down the thermostat, and voila…you’re an environmentalist! And you don’t even have to really do anything but cash the check from the advertiser who wanted to be perceived as green too.

Politicians are figuring this out.

On Wednesday afternoon, for example, Gov. Tim Pawlenty, in his role as chair of the National Governor’s Association, touted “Securing a Clean Energy Future.” Minnesota and Kansas will become the first states to:

* Pledge to purchase high-efficiency computer equipment that meets or exceeds federal ENERGY STAR ratings;

* Optimize existing computer systems by educating employees about more efficient and effective computer power management strategies, such as better using hibernation and sleep modes; and

*Ensure in subsequent years states purchase computing equipment with increasing levels of efficiency.

It sounds like a really big deal with far-reaching consequences. But, it’s not.

The goal is to reduce PC power usage by 50% among state-owned computers. Easy enough to do by doing nothing since the energy use of PCs and laptops is coming down.

But let’s do the math and pretend it’s not. A typical desktop PC uses between 65 and 250 watts. With an LCD monitor, it uses about 160 watts. According to this cool online calculator, this would use 119 kilowatt hours per month, at a cost of about $114 a year.

The state buys 4,000 PCs a year, according to the governor. Based on a three-year life, that means the state owns 12,000 PCs. Assuming a two-week vacation for each employee — and no government shutdown — the total PC power used per year would be 1,820,000 kwh if the computers were never shut off. .

The goal is to reduce that by 50% under the initiative announced at a news conference by the governor. So the goal is saving 910,000 kilowatt hours a year. A barrel of oil produces about 500 kwh of electricity. So we’re talking 1,820 barrels of oil saved through this initiative over the course of a year.

Is this a significant number? Not really, especially when saying “I’m going to buy computers that use less energy,” is like saying, “I’m not going to buy a computer with a 386 processor anymore.”

One barrel of oil makes 19.6 gallons of gasoline. 1,820 barrels of oil is equivalent to 35,672 gallons of gasoline for your car. An average car, driven 15,000 miles a year, getting 25 miles per gallon will use 600 gallons of gasoline this year. So the governor’s announcement — even if it were to be implemented right now (which it won’t be) — will equal taking 59 cars off Minnesota roads for a year. Since only a third of computers are replaced a year, the story here is that the National Governor’s Association initiative is going to save the equivalent of the energy used by 20 cars a year in Minnesota.

Nice, but as the polar bears might say, “big whoop.”

And only two states have bought into this?

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