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Dell Finds Small Tweaks Bring Gigantic Savings

This is why parents yell at their kids to turn off the lights around the house.

Thanks to small changes in Windows and hardware settings, as well as improved efficiency in its power supplies, Dell said it's been able to save a total of $3 billion in energy costs over the last three years. All told, that's 29 million tons of CO2 not released over that same time period.

The company arrived at that figure by taking 2005 energy standards, when it started improving the energy efficiency of its OptiPlex, Latitude and Precision desktop systems, and measuring what could have been vs. what it changed over the last three years.

All the major PC makers have moved to more energy efficient models, but Dell is the first to spell out such dramatic savings.

The changes in individual PCs are small, around $25 to $75 of annual savings per machine per year. But given Dell sells units in the millions worldwide, after three years, the power of scale added up.

"If you replace enough 100 watt light bulbs with 25 watt compact fluorescent lamps, you will see a massive reduction in energy use over the course of a year," said Charles King, president of Pund-IT, an IT research firm. "Dell is showing the long term value of capturing small scale savings.

Separately, those savings don't account for much. Taken together they add up pretty quickly."

Dell focuses on a number of green initiatives, from packaging to recycling of old hardware, but the area where customers see the most value directly is energy, an area where costs are going up significantly.

It made three major changes. For one, instead of sending out systems with default Windows settings, which were at best minimal, it implemented its own power savings settings that were more aggressive. Dell also switched to high efficiency power supplies in its PCs and tweaked the power settings for the hardware, putting it in standby mode more aggressively.

Power supplies a key to savings

Fixing the power supplies was the biggest help, as they were not known for efficiency. Purchase a non-Energy Star compliant power supply at your local PC store and it might be 60 to 70 percent energy efficient, according to Michael Murphy, senior manager of worldwide environmental affairs at Dell.

Dell went for 80 percent efficient power supplies and more recently switched to 90 percent efficient. Beyond that, he said, there isn't much return on investment. "Once you get above 90 percent, the payback to design power supplies for each incremental percent is pretty costly," he told InternetNews.com.

Dell plans to increase efficiency across its line of business clients by 25 percent by 2010. It's shifting to LED monitors in its laptops, something Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) has already done with its new MacBooks. A 14-inch LED notebook is 43 percent more efficient than an LCD screen used in notebooks now, said Murphy.

The energy efficiency of Dell OptiPlex desktops has improved nearly 50 percent since 2005, while Latitude laptops have improved 16 percent since 2006. That's because laptops are inherently more power efficient due to their design and using less power-hungry parts.

King said Dell has discussed what he calls "the green compound interest," that over time, the savings add up. "If you move forward with aggressively building energy efficient systems, it's a benefit that accrues year after year. Get enough systems out there and it ends up saving billions for customers," he said.