Making a power play

Posted: Thursday, April 24, 2008

Life in Alaska is certainly fascinating. None of the amenities of modern civilization can be taken for granted - such as a reliable source of inexpensive energy. Like many in Juneau, I woke up last week to the sound of the local radio station and listened to the morning news. To hear that our main power source was to be interrupted for four months due to a massive avalanche was one thing. But to hear a moment later that our electric rates could possible escalate 500 percent!?!

I consider myself average. A prediction of that sort could increase my electric bill from $250 to $1250! Extended to four months, it could mean an additional cash outlay for electricity of $4000. So some serious changes will need to occur to reduce the effects of this financial tremor.

What can we do to reduce our use of electricity by 50%? Closing off rooms, reducing the temperature of your hot water, cooking fewer meals, hand-washing dishes and watching less TV. These are the heavy hitters.

What about the computer? It is a fitting question, now that we depend on Internet connectivity. Plain and simple, the computer itself is not much of an energy hog. The two physical components in a computer that consume the most wattage are the hard drive and the fans. The problem is actually the monitor.

The modern, flat-screen LCD monitors that we now use are a vast improvement over the old cathode-ray tube monitors. But minimizing use of the monitor would have the best effect on computer usage. One major suggestion is to refrain from watching DVDs on a computer.

Computer usage may not affect home energy use too much, but there are a few things you can do that can help. First, you can simply use it less often. Second, you can tune your computer to power-down when it is not in use. For modern PCs and Windows Vista, this is essentially a no-brainer because the systems come off the shelf with energy-saving settings. We simply accept them and move on. But Windows XP may need some tweaking to get optimal power-saving savings.

Access power-saving functions through the display properties ("personalize" in Vista). Select the "Screen Saver" tab, and near the bottom you will notice a link for "Power." From there you can choose schemas which will automatically adjust settings for your monitor, hard drive, stand-by and hibernation.

You can then customize the settings for each item, determining how many minutes of inactivity the system will allow before powering down the monitor or the computer. Vista is great for the geeky sorts, with settings for each component of the computer, including processor usage.

The big advantage of this is usually with kids' computer use. They often will not care if the computer is running and will walk away leaving it on. But if the power-saving settings are active, after the allotted time the monitor goes blank, saving considerable energy. Then the hard drive will go idle, which is the biggest energy consumer within your computer.

Next, stand-by is activated, which stores the current sessions onto your hard drive while keeping the CPU functions of the computer operative.

Finally, shutdown - referred to as hibernation - occurs, which saves your system settings to the hard drive and turns off the computer. From both stand-by or hibernation, pressing the power button on your computer will return it to the same settings you left it with.

• Eric M. Niewoehner can be reached at

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