2007-07-27 : Searching for things in the dark

A learned colleague of mine, Mr Dov Spinks, recently made me aware of a website called Blackle – to save you clicking, it's essentially Google search, but instead of appearing as a white screen with black text, it's a black screen with grey text. The reason for this, as indicated on the 'about' page (and quantified by an eco blog), is that apparently a monitor uses less power to display a dark screen than a white one, and therefore global environmental damage due to power generation emissions and fuel consumption could be reduced if people did the decent thing and used this dark-screened alternative.

Now, straight away, the idea struck me as being a joke. Evidently though it isn't. The article explains that it really only works on CRT monitors, where light is fired at the screen coating in order to produce colour (as opposed to LCD screens where the monitor is simply backlit and the colour is produced by the layer of liquid crystal between the light source and the viewer's eye).

What got me was the “concerned global citizen” feel of the article, and the sense that “every little bit helps”. Their fairly “thumb-in-the-air” calculations illustrated that globally the power reduction would be “750 Megawatt-hours a year”, which I think you'll agree, to the average punter with no idea of power measurement, sounds like it's worth doing. But why bother with a campaign like this when there are far more genuine ways that electricity could be saved, such as turning off all of the lights in office building at nights. (This rather cynical piece from The Register earlier this year outlines the sorts of reasons why this will not in fact happen).

That's not to say I don't believe in the idea of reducing unnecessary power usage – to that end earlier this year I shelled out 30 quid on a spanky new powerboard that disconnects all the 'slave' plugs when there's no current going through the 'master' plug. It's a neatish way of addressing the “standby power issue”, primarily associated with having loads of computer gear plugged in and left on standby all day. No idea what the overall effect on our power bill's gonna be, but that's not really why I bought it – as Richie pointed out, the same effect could be achieved for 30 quid less by turning the computer power supply off at the wall. But I digress (not easy to do if you don't have an actual point to begin with).

I suppose the motivation behind this post is the well-intentioned but irritating rhetoric from people where it comes to saving the environment – it just seems hard to believe how committed anyone actually is to the concept when you read about the existence of things such as the Las Vegas Neon Graveyard – as you can easily work out, it's a big collection of neon signs formerly used in Vegas. Thinking about this, you've got all the energy and raw materials that went into making these signs in the first place, then there's all that consumed for their replacements, and then of course there's the millions of megawatt/hours of electricity used to power the damn things. OK, so the figure that the blog article came up with was that if everyone in the world used a black-backgrounded Google then the estimate would be 750 megawatt/hours per year. Wikipedia says that the average per capita power consumption figure for the UK is 5.784 megawatt/hours per year (notably, less than half that of the US), so the effect of the entire world using the search engine would amount to the same as if about 125 people in the UK didn't use any electricity at all. How's this – if you're going to get the entire world to cooperate with any kind of energy saving suggestion, how about… gee, I don't know… getting them to participate in a plan that's USEFUL!?

I guess the useful net effect of an announcement of a concept like this is that at least it gets people talking, and even in some rare cases, THINKING (Ask Pablo seems to have taken the opportunity to point out that screensavers are a bullshit idea, and you could save loads of power simply by switching your screen off). Imagine what could happen if you could convince a number of people equivalent to the total number of CRT users in the world (i.e. the target group for the Blackle switchover) to use a solar-powered mobile phone charger (the Energy Savings Trust reports that 25 million phone chargers left plugged in all day with no phone attached to them pointlessly consume approximately 219 Gigawatt/hours a year), or to turn their air conditioners down by 2-5 degrees.

OK that's enough on that – I've got to go wipe the foam from my mouth.

(In case you're wondering, we're leading the charge on power consumption reduction at our place – not only do I have one of those spanky powerboards, but about 2 months ago the lighting circuit in our basement blew, so for the last 8 weeks we've used ZERO power on lighting! Assuming of course the circuit isn't shorting out and electrifying the whole frame of the house, or anything)