How important is a device’s carbon footprint?

Key players in the electronics industry recognize the need to reduce their environmental impact, which includes lowering the energy consumption of their products as well as at their facilities and cutting their use of natural resources. They are also working to eliminate packaging, incorporate more recyclable materials, and do a better job of end-of-life management.

A growing strategy for many electronics companies is purchasing “green” power. This month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its list of the Top 50 partner organizations using the most renewable electricity. Guess who topped the list? Intel.

Intel Corp. increased its commitment by nearly doubling its annual green power use to more than 2.5 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh). The EPA estimates that this is equivalent to avoiding the carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from the electricity use of more than 218,000 average American homes.

Other green power leaders cited in the electronics industry include Cisco Systems Inc. (No. 11), Sony Corp. of America (No. 27), Motorola (No. 30) and Dell (No. 35).

We’re also hearing about more electronic component manufacturers working to cut their carbon emissions out of their manufacturing processes. This has resulted in the declaration of carbon footprints for some of their latest IC chips. A product’s carbon footprint takes into account all processes to make, distribute, use and dispose of the device.

One of the latest examples comes from AMD. The chip maker recently announced that its new AMD Fusion Accelerated Processing Unit (APU) Model E-350, can reduce carbon footprint by up to 40 percent over its life compared to the previous generation featuring an AMD Athlon Neo II Dual core processor and an ATI Mobility Radeon HD 5430 graphics processor.

The study compared systems featuring the AMD E-350 APU (18 watts Thermal Design Power), which is a single-chip processor that combines a dual-core CPU with a DirectX11 discrete-class graphics processing unit (GPU), while the reference system featured a dual-core AMD Athlon Neo II CPU and a discrete ATI Mobility Radeon HD 5430 GPU card.

The carbon footprint study calculated the total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of the systems from the silicon fabrication through the use phases of the product life cycle. The findings showed that the AMD Fusion APU reference system generated 40.2 kg CO2e of GHG emissions compared to 67.4 kg CO2e of GHG emissions for the previous generation products — a 40.3 percent reduction (or a savings of 27.2 kg CO2e) in overall GHG emissions associated with the APU product over its estimated lifetime, said AMD.

The study also showed that the largest carbon benefits for the APU comes from lower energy consumption when the product is used. One of AMD’s new product strategies is to help customers reduce their energy use by providing energy-efficient chips. Since product use was found to be the greatest source of carbon emissions, the study indicates that a single AMD Fusion APU-based system could save an estimated 9 KWh of energy/year.

Of course, AMD is not the only semiconductor supplier working to cut their emissions. Other chip makers like Intel, NXP, Samsung and Toshiba have been diligently working on this for years, and have declared the carbon footprint of many of their own devices, which have been posted on their Web sites.

Another interesting development is that chip makers are starting to add and/or expand environmental metrics to their supply base ratings. According to Intel’s CSR report, released in May 2010, the chip maker disclosed for the first time the list of its top 50 suppliers, and trained them on new environmental, social, and governance requirements and metrics that they’ll be evaluated on.

IBM added three new requirements to its management system last year that address their “first-tier” suppliers’ corporate and environmental responsibilities. At the time, IBM said it had about 28,000 first-tier suppliers in 90 countries. The new requirements include:

–Defining, deploying, and sustaining a management system that addresses corporate responsibility, including supplier conduct and environmental protection
–Measuring performance and establishing voluntary, quantifiable environmental goals
–Publicly disclosing results associated with these voluntary environmental goals and other environmental aspects of their management systems

With some of these latest “green” initiatives it raises the question of how important is the carbon footprint of a supplier’s product portfolio and will this type of metric become part of a buyer’s supplier audit and component selection process. And will evaluating and ranking companies on sustainability metrics become the norm as part of an overall vendor qualification.

These potential changes in how an OEM selects its suppliers may be driven in part by consumers who are increasingly making purchasing decisions based on the “greenness” of electronics, investors who are concerned about the cost of carbon emissions, and a host of energy-efficient regulations that are setting ever lower power consumption targets for electronics — all these issues will impact the supply chain from the plastics used in enclosures to the ICs used to manage and power devices.

I would like to hear from both buyers and component suppliers on this issue.