Three billion personal computers in use today consume more than 1% of energy production, and 30 million computer servers use an added 1.5% of global electricity generation. And it’s not just computers using all of this power. The explosion of smartphones, tablets and the other digitally enabled devices – the so called “Internet of Things” – is causing all of those numbers to escalate. By 2020, the estimate is that there will be 50 billion connected devices – about seven devices for every person on the planet today – that are forecasted to consume 14% of global electricity generation.

So, with this large and growing power demand, is the digital revolution helping or hurting efforts to reduce greenhouse gasses? A panel discussion at the recent Boston College Corporate Citizenship Conference dug into this question. The panel featured Sam Naffziger, Corporate and IEEE Fellow from AMD; Dr. Neal Elliott at ACEEE; Chris Lloyd of Verizon; and Dr. Michael Webber from the University of Texas. Titled “The Future Is Energy Efficiency: How the Digital Revolution Affects Sustainability,” this discussion explored the sustainability implications of the technology revolution and the trend lines that will impact the future.

Obviously, conserving energy is an important issue for the technology industry. By saving energy, we can help reduce costs, preserve natural resources and mitigate the climate impacts associated with energy production and use. Case in point: About a year ago AMD announced a goal to improve the energy efficiency of its mobile processors by 25 times by the year 2020 from a 2014 baseline. It’s an ambitious goal but one worth aiming for. Using a car analogy, this rate of improvement would be like turning a 100-horsepower car that gets 30 miles per gallon into a 500-horsepower car that gets 150 miles per gallon in only six years.

That’s pretty significant. Put another way, if all laptops in use in 2020 matched AMD’s energy efficiency goal, the annual energy savings could amount to 18.4 billion kilowatt hours. That’s equivalent to the output from 3.3 coal-fired power plants, which is enough to supply 150% of the annual power needs for Washington D.C. And that’s just for laptops. If similar efficiencies extended throughout the information and communications technology (ICT) industries, the savings would be compounded.

But there is an even bigger story: As we move into the era of the “Internet of Things,” digitally enabled devices are being utilized in a myriad of ways that can save energy and benefit society. From new medical devices to distance learning technologies to connected thermostats, digitally enabled devices are helping to make our world smarter and more efficient. Just one example from the GeSI SMARTER 2020 study: Digitally enabled systems could cut greenhouse gas emissions 16.5% by 2020, resulting in $1.9 trillion savings in energy costs.

The ACEEE uses the term “intelligent efficiency” to characterize the savings that result from applying ICT to energy using systems, and their research shows that that these savings can exceed 15%. Of course ICT uses some energy to achieve these savings, but the research shows that intelligent efficiency saves between 10 to 20 times the energy it requires.

So, the message is twofold: Energy-efficient technology is essential for our digital future and these technologies can enable energy savings across the entire economy. It’s a win-win situation: As more systems are enabled with energy-efficient digital technology, customers save money and we lighten our environmental footprint. As someone who has worked in environmental protection for more than 30 years, it’s a rare and wonderful thing when the needs of an industry and the environment align.

Tim Mohin
Chief Executive at Global Reporting Initiative (GRI)
I am a seasoned executive with over twenty years of experience in environmental sustainability and corporate social responsibility (CSR). As the Chief Executive with GRI, I am leading the movement to embed sustainability into every organization’s decision making process. Formerly, I held leadership roles with three major technology firms, the US Senate and the Environmental Protection Agency. I have established a record of successful leadership in multiple cultures and a reputation as a thought leader in sustainability and CSR. My major strengths are establishing strategic direction, leading teams to achieve meaningful results and developing effective communications. I am the author of the 2012 book: Changing Business from the Inside Out: A Treehugger’s Guide to Working in Corporations, and Chairman Emeritus (2013-14) of the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition.

I speak and write frequently on corporate responsibility, and sustainability. Follow me @TimJMohin