Can Microchips Be Green?
The-Edge Hangs Out With Scott McNealy
November 28, 2005

The Greenest Chip on Earth? Sun Microsystems' Niagra UltraSPARC T1. Credit: Edge photo by Gar Smith
Sun Microsystems has out-maneuvered its computer-chip rivals IBM and Dell by going green. Sun CEO Scott McNealy unveiled the firm's new energy-efficient super-chip during a panel at the Golden Gate Club in the Presidio -- and The-Edge was invited.

Sun pulled out all the stops, trucking in the company's own sculpted plastic backdrop and fielding a three-camera TV crew to broadcast the proceedings live to viewers around the world.

In addition to McNealy, the panel included such draws as Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), Christine Ervin of the Green Building Council, Noah Horowitz of the Natural Resources Defense Council, Sun Microsystem's VP Greg Papadopoulos, and Dr. Jonathan Koomey, a Professor of Environmental Engineering at Stanford. The panel (whose 1-woman-4 man ratio mirrored the audience) was hosted by ├╝ber-interviewer Michael Krasny, host of KQED's "Forum."

The-Edge gave Sun credit for choosing a woodsy site with a Gate view, but deducted eco-points for choosing a venue located miles from public transit. More points were deducted when the hosts offered water bottles of made from plastic (a petroleum byproduct). The-Edge briefly forgot about toting up points when the hosts started passing out cool-looking, silvery 128MB Sun memory sticks. Guests also received little burlap bags containing what appeared to be the World's Heaviest Refrigerator Magnet. These turned out to be facsimiles of Sun's new chip, the Niagra UltraSPARC T1, which runs on only 70 watts of power -- less than half the power used by traditional chips.

The new chip will save electricity, reduce air conditioning requirements and cut the amount of space needed for network servers.

"The good news," says McNealy (who, apparently taking a fashion tip from Apple CEO Steve Jobs, appeared onstage in a work shirt and blue jeans), is that "the number of people online is expected to grow by 350 million in just two years." And that, he added, is also "the bad news." The Internet runs on hidden plantations of servers and the costs of powering these data-crunching Megabyte-mills keeps rising. Meanwhile, at home and in the office, "the typical PC uses about 300 watts of electricity and pumps out about 850 BTUs of heat," McNealy noted. "We've gotta change this." Hence, the Niagra chip.

"But let's be clear," McNealy added. "We're in this to make money."

The NRDC's Horowitz noted that, a decade ago, electric appliances accounted for 1-2 percent of a home's electric bill. Today they consume 10-20 percent of all home electricity. A High-Definition TV, for instance, can use as much electricity as a large refrigerator. The NRDC recently convinced Panasonic to produce an HDTV that uses 30 percent less power and is now trying to sway the rest of the industry to follow suit.

Horowitz also went on a tear about TIVOs, those little TV-taping devices that continue to devour power even when they are "off." The NRDC's prescription: "They need a sleep mode."

Amory Lovins backed up Horowitz' complaint, calling for an end to this kind of waste. "Several powerplants in the US are running full-time just to power things that are 'turned off,'" Lovins harrumphed. Using existing technologies, we could cut US power needs by 75 percent. Lovins cited the book, "Winning the Oil End Game," which shows how increased efficiencies could reduce our need for oil by 50 percent. "It would be $70 billion cheaper not to buy this stuff." Replacing America's gasoline-powered automobile fleet with hydrogen fuel-cell cars would clear the air and stabilize the country's balance of payments tailspin. As a bonus, Lovins suggested, you could plug the tens of millions of parked fuel-cell cars into the grid during the workday and at night, and they would produce enough power to replace several power plants.

Lovins was particularly pleased that his fellow RMI techno-geeks had shown Texas Instruments how to build a chip in Texas that would be cheaper than one imported from a factory in China. Lovins proudly laid claim to being the only guy on Earth who is "growing bananas in the Rockies" -- thanks to a super-efficient home-office that is heated and powered almost totally by the sun.

Lovins praised California and Oregon for promoting energy conservation -- in contrast to every other state where utilities "are rewarded for increasing energy use."

John Koomey traced most of today's technology tangles to "the two different worlds" inhabited by engineers and the mass-market. It's not enough to consider whether you could build a new product, Koomey suggested, it's also important to ponder whether you should build a new gizmo.

In recent years, China's booming economy and growing pollution has taken a lot of hits from politicians and enviros. But unlike the US, China has a new Five-Year Plan to reduce energy consumption.

During the question-and-answer period, McNealy batted away a question about the need for government intervention to promote energy efficiency. Unlike the other panelists, who called for federal laws to encourage efficiency, McNealy described himself as a "free-market Libertarian" who is wary of top-down regulation. McNealy envisions a future where "people will use, but not own, computers." He also praised work-at-home arrangements as pro-environment because they keep cars off the roads. This prompted a young woman to question whether this wouldn't further isolate employees and erode the experience of community that makes democracy (and unions) possible.

Kelly Quirk from Friends of the Urban Forest (after plugging the fact that FUF has planted 40,000 trees) offered a novel suggestion: In the future, he said, these meetings should be directed to people in the advertising industry -- a community that clearly seems to lack a broader environmental perspective.

When another activist asked what Sun had done to decrease vehicle use and asked if Sun was a member of the energy-saving Chicago Coalition -- "and, if not, why not" -- McNealy looked a bit stung. He asked a colleague in the front row to confirm his recollection that the EPA had ranked Sun in "fourth place" as a company with one of the best records on employee commuting. The discussion ended an uncontested observation from McNealy: "The most efficient car is the one you don't drive."

During the catered lunch, The-Edge sat between Krasny and Thimmakka's Resources Director Ritu Primlani who had just arrived by bus from LA after a three-day workshop in Washington, DC with other winners of the Avoda International Awards.

Primlani explained some new business plans that, if successful, would combine moneymaking with planet-saving. It's critical to reverse the traditional pattern of philanthropy, Primlani said. The planet is in too much peril to rely on people who wait to "give something back," she argued. And then she offered a prescription that McNealy would certainly agree with. What is needed, Primlani said, is a new model where "you make money doing good, instead of waiting to do good after making money."

Climate Change: Notes from a Bioneers Panel

During the October Bioneers conference in San Rafael, California, The-Edge attended a panel on climate change with MIT engineer Greg Watson and author Bill McKibben, moderated by Carl Nagin, editor of Common Ground magazine.

"We can't make the perfect the enemy of the good," McKibben warned. With cheap oil running out, it will become necessary "to grow more food closer to home." And with "four percent of electricity used to dry clothes," it's time to repeal the restrictive covenants at housing developments that prevent residents from using clotheslines to dry their clothing.

Nagin pointed out that "Green Power is a Civil Rights issue" and McKibben observed: "We have to start with the question: 'What kind of communities do we want to live in: "What other goals besides just sustainable energy" are important to us? Meanwhile, "There is no leadership at the state or federal level -- it's the Katrina Syndrome. We could have a blackout in the middle of winter -- and people will die."

Fortunately, Watson noted, energy conservation initiatives are already underway in 25 US cities and "this week, the European Union has issued Roapmaps for Conservation." Massachusetts has begun work on a Peak Oil Commission, Cambridge is working on a Climate Action Plan and there are an estimated 700 Clean Energy sites in the state.

Some engineers have proposed generating electricity by covering the Mojave Desert with solar panels since "that will soon be the only way to generate the electricity needed to power Las Vegas." Nagin wasn't prepared to sacrifice the Mojave. "I vote for covering Vegas," he said.

One the issue of forest ethics, McKibben said it's critical to focus on ways to save the Boreal Forests because they represent a huge carbon bank. "Most carbon is stored in the soil, not in trees."

With so many crises happening simultaneously, what do we tackle first? McKibben's response: It's no longer possible to choose -- "We must do all these things at once."

Greg Watson explained that the problems are caused by a lack of foresight -- the result of too many leaders who are "tunnel-visionaries." And there is the problem of entrenched fortunes. Nuclear power companies are now competing for federal subsidies that were supposed to go towards "renewable" energy. Nuclear is hardly renewable but it's been falsely re-packed as a "green" energy source that dose not contribute to global warming.

McKibben's response: "Relying on nuclear power is like burning $20 bills." There is no longer any reason "to wait for the cost of solar electricity to come down since we now know that the cost of oil is only going to keep going up." But, in the end, "there are no absolutely benign energy options."

Watson noted that an infectious disease center is planned for the heart of the poorest, most populous neighborhood in Massachusetts. The EIS that was prepared for the project ran 300 pages and concluded that there was "No Alternative" to building in this poor community. By contrast, the EIS for plans to site the Cape Wind electric-generator towers in the waters off rich, white, Hyannisport, called forth an EIS that ran on for 4,000 pages and concluded that were several alternatives. Watson saw this as a classic example of how white privilege works even in the preparations of EIS documents.

McKibben: "Climate change could damage Italian fisheries overnight, if the Gulf Stream fails. Remember, Milan is as far north as Montreal."

Watson noted that "15,000 East Coast homeowners living within 1.5 miles of the shore have had their insurance policies cancelled."

The War on Terror and the Privatization of Freedom

On November 5, a Doonesbury strip raised the issue of the Georgia poll tax. Referring to the law as "an unconstitutional disgrace," one of Gary Trudeau's regulars complained: "Georgia now requires citizens without proper ID to buy an ID card. Guess who's affected most -- poor blacks! That's right, forks. Mr. Jim Crow is back in the house. The Republican Georgia Legislature has covered itself in Shame!"

Meanwhile, Arizona, in an effort to "control the threat of illegal aliens," passed a law requiring voters to provide proof of citizenship (passports, birth certificates, etc.). The result was that 60% of Arizona citizen who were previously eligible to vote were disenfranchised because they couldn't find the documents or had changed their names because of marriage or divorce.

At the same time, the government (which was so concerned about airport security that it created a secret list of people who would banned from flying) is now proposing to create a "Preferred Flyer Pass" that would allow qualified holders to speed through airport security inspections in a matter of seconds. Approved passengers would be able to purchase these special cards to avoid inspections.

The "Preferred Flyer Pass" suggests a high-flying version of Toll Roads -- those pay-as-you-go roadways that allow wealthier citizens to buy access to special highways. Freedom of movement, which was once a universal right, now can be purchased by the rich. Similarly, surveillance of the Internet, phones and cell phones has created a demand for a market-based "solution" where the wealthy can purchase encryption software to mask their private communications.

And why are wealthy people willing to pay for privileges that used to be rights? Because the government has created a situation that makes it increasingly uncomfortable to fly, drive and communicate. This enhances the value of activities that used to be free -- and this, in turn, drives up the price that can be charged to regain a measure of these lost freedoms. In short: freedom has been privatized.

Why Citizens Don't Speak Up More

In a recent speech at the Spirit Rock Meditation Center north of San Francisco, former California State Senator Tom Hayden wondered why citizens don't speak truth to power in the same numbers and with the same energy as student protestors in the Sixties. After all, Hayden pointed out, Americans who believe in progressive values actually outnumber staunch conservatives.

While driving Hayden back to the Oakland Airport, we had an opportunity to pursue this conundrum. "Citizens in the US are living in an abusive relationship with the government," The-Edge proposed. "Washington is like a reckless, irresponsible, alcoholic spouse who fails to provide for the welfare of the family and is prone to fits of violence. But the family's too terrified to speak up."

It is time for citizens to recognize the sickness and end our denial. Citizens who refuse to recognize the pathology and fail to act, seem to be caught in the same web of co-dependency that prevents abused and suffering women from fleeing their wife-beating husbands.

We keep telling ourselves that the Republicans and the Democrats "have their faults but they're not so bad" but that's a classic avoidance maneuver that prevents us from confronting hard truths that demand risk-taking. Would someone please tell the Democrats: "It's time for intervention."

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