The Cost of Standby Computers

On Freakonomics, Daniel Hamermesh rebuff a claim that standby computers in the U.S. waste $2.8 billion on energy.

It ignores the cost of turning computers off — and having to turn them on again the next morning. Let’s say that process takes five minutes per day, and one does it 250 days per year. That’s 1,250 minutes, or more than 20 hours per person per year.

Assume the average computer user’s wage is $21 per hour, and take the old estimate that time is valued at one-third of the wage. So each person’s time per year turning his/her computer off and on is worth 20 x $7 = $140. I’m being conservative and assuming only 50 million U.S. computer users. That gives a cost of turning computers off/on of 50,000,000 x $140 = $7 billion, which is 2.5 times the alleged savings from turning computers off. Even if people’s time were valued at only $3 per hour (less than half the minimum wage), leaving computers on would still make sense.

This story is yet another example of environmental savings uber alles — that saving $1 in environmental damage is worth much greater costs incurred along other dimensions. These stories assume explicitly — or, more usually, implicitly — that people’s time has no value.

I read through some of the first comments, and every comment had problems with Hamermesh’s argument. Mostly, people claim they do other things while their computer starts up or closes down. Myself, I tend to do unecessary things while the computer starts up and would prefer to just start working.

The story also reminded me of an old post on Environmental Economics on an energy saving plan at the Appalachian State University, linking it to carbon release. Ol’ mighty John Whitehead mixes up the numbers, however (see the comments).

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