About 15 years ago, the term "PC" came to be shorthand in the United States for "politically correct," referring, usually, to well-meaning ideas—say, about race or the environment—getting taken to ridiculous extremes. But a decade before that, of course, IBM had made "PC" the abbreviation for the personal computer. It was only a matter of time for somebody to wonder how PC, really, is the PC.
In the 15 November issue of the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology, Eric Williams reports that the personal computer is, in fact, not very correct at all: its energy and environmental costs are surprisingly high. Williams, an information technology and environmental researcher at the United Nations University in Tokyo, conducted his analysis based on a PC with a Pentium 111 processor and a 17-inch cathode-ray-tube screen.
His detailed assessment calculates the total energy and materials that go into manufacturing a PC, and shows that it's a highly energy-intensive process. Taking into account the PC's rather short average lifespan of about three years, that makes a computer's average annual energy cost greater than that of household appliances such as refrigerators, which last about 15 years.
Williams relied on an approach that takes into account the energy costs of all input materials as well as the energy used in basic steps in the industrial process, from semiconductor device fabrication to computer assembly. On that basis, his estimate of a PC's production cost—6400 megajoules [ ]—is almost twice the estimate in a 1998 study.
It takes four times as much energy to produce a computer as the PC uses in its whole lifetime, says Williams. "[We] need a different strategy, such as a longer lifespan."