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(John Kemp is a Reuters market analyst. The views expressed are his own)
By John Kemp
LONDON, July 12 (Reuters) - The U.S. Department of Energy wants to establish labelling programmes and minimum energy efficiency standards for all computers and servers sold in the United States.
In a pair of notices published in the Federal Register on Friday, the department announced it has "tentatively determined" that computers and servers should be treated as covered consumer products under the Energy Policy and Conservation Act (EPCA).
The notes announced a consultation period for interested parties to submit written comments, data and information, which will run until Aug. 12.
After that, if the department makes a final determination, it will develop rules for the same sort of labelling requirements and minimum energy efficiency standards that are already imposed on products such as air conditioners, television sets and dishwashers under the EnergySTAR programme.
To be listed as a covered product, average annual energy consumption per household must exceed 100 kilowatt-hours (kWh) per year.
Among other things, the label would disclose the estimated annual operating cost of the equipment based on its typical energy consumption.
The department could prescribe a compulsory performance standard, however, if it determines that average household consumption is more than 150 kWh, total consumption is more than 4.2 billion kWh per year, and a labelling rule would be insufficient to induce manufacturers to produce and consumers to buy energy-efficient products.
The performance standard would specify a minimum level of energy efficiency or a maximum quantity of energy use. The standards would apply to all computers and servers, whether used at home or in an office or a server farm.
In effect, designation of computers and servers as covered consumer products would allow the department to begin establishing efficiency standards across the computing industry.
Computers currently consume around 30.3 billion kWh in homes and another 31.3 billion kWh in offices and other commercial premises, equivalent to around 1.6 percent of all the electricity consumed in the United States.
The department estimates 104 million households own at least one computer. If those computers consume a total of 30.3 billion kWh, that works out at an average of 291 kWh per household per year - easily exceeding the 150 kWh threshold.
For servers, the department claims aggregate energy use is already significant and rising as cloud computing becomes more ubiquitous. Servers are widely used by households for cloud computing and hosted email services.
Servers consumed at least 26.5 billion kWh in 2010, 0.6 percent of nationwide electricity use, according to the department.
But the Federal Register notice cites research stating that annual energy consumption ranges from 1,900-2,100 kWh for volume servers to 5,400-6,900 kWh for mid-range servers and 66,000-81,000 kWh for high-end servers.
One report, cited by the department, concluded that server farms, also known as data centres, accounted for as much as 2 percent of all electricity used in the United States in 2010.
Based on minimum consumption of 1,900 kWh for a volume server, the department estimates average household energy use for servers is "very likely" to exceed 100 kWh per year. If this finding is upheld, it would allow the department to prescribe labelling standards. If consumption is higher, compulsory efficiency standards could also be imposed.
Data centres consume enormous amounts of power to run computer equipment and keep it cool. The amount of heat given off and transferred to the environment through cooling and air conditioning is enough to create detectable heat islands and microclimates in the vicinity of some of the largest server farms.
The Department of Energy has already been working with centre owners and operators to measure, benchmark and improve efficiency at the big server farms. It has sponsored research into improved efficiency and cooling through its Advanced Management Office. (here)
One of its software innovations, Data Centre Pro, helps managers identify and evaluate energy efficiency opportunities for new and existing server farms.
Its Data Centre Energy Practitioner programme, developed with industry, trains and certifies developers and operators in all aspects of data centre energy management including information technology, cooling systems, air management and electrical systems.
Centres use so much power they already have sharp financial incentives to minimise electricity consumption.
There is some evidence server farms are already becoming more efficient.
Compared with earlier in the decade, "servers in 2010 have much higher processing power, more memory, faster network connections and bigger power supplies", according to Stanford University's Jonathan Koomey. But "they also have power management and other clever technologies to reduce electricity consumption". ("Growth in Data Center Electricity Use 2005 to 2010" Aug 2011)
The Department of Energy has worked constructively with data centre owners and some computer manufacturers. But if computers and servers are designated as "covered consumer products" under EPCA, it will have much more power.
The department will be able to work with a wider range of manufacturers and force them to give much more priority to electricity consumption.
While energy efficiency standards may draw some complaints from manufacturers, they already apply to a wide variety of appliances and have been widely credited with curbing the growth of power consumption and helping keep bills low. (editing by Jane Baird)