Blackle Wishes It Were Greener

If you imagine a backlit computer screen as something like a spotlight, shining images out at you, it’s not a far-fetched idea that an all-white screen is the equivalent of that light on full blast. That was the concept behind, and a number of similar sites like it, that turn Google into an all-black website with the stated purpose of saving energy. The idea is that, given millions of people visit Google every day, an almost entirely white screen is collectively wasting tremendous amounts of energy.

While there is something to the theory, and a certain level of proof to back up the idea, tech and energy savings experts have largely disputed the idea behind Blackle and its imitators, citing negligible differences in energy usage from displaying different colors on most modern computer screens. Google’s energy guru himself dismissed Blackle, and suggested a number of other better ways to save electricity with home computing.

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Still, it’s not entirely without merit, and the site remains up, albeit with a disclaimer on its intent in the “About” page. The idea for Blackle—so goes the story from its Australian founder Toby Heap—came in 2007 with a post on the little-known environment blog EcoIron, which claimed an all-black version of the Google homepage would save 750,000 megawatt hours a year. The post became popular on linking site Digg, and got the attention of Heap.

Before long, he had started Blackle, a webpage that is all black and shades of grey, and uses the Google search engine embedded in the page. The website encourages users to set it as their homepage, and also displays the electricity it claims to have saved since it began. Blackle became popular fast, making the rounds on several tech and environment blogs and crashing its server occasionally. Since Blackle launched, there have been several imitators, including “Blackl,” “Darkoogle” and “Google Black.”

Not all of the attention was positive. Bloggers started poking holes in Heap’s claims, accusing him of greenwashing and taking advantage of web users’ best intentions so he could make money from online ad revenue. That income was no doubt significant given the spike in traffic.

For example, the Sydney Morning Herald ran an article entitled “Search site cashes in on eco-guilt” in August 2007:

“The Sydney-based makers of a so-called eco-friendly version of Google claim they’re helping to rescue the planet, but all that’s really been saved is the piles of money they’re banking in the process.

Hundreds of thousands of searches a day are conducted by users, who use the search engine instead of Google because they believe they’re doing their bit for the environment…”

The article estimated that Heap was making heaps of money, thousands of dollars in Adsense revenue per day. The writer also estimated, with the help of a tech reporter, that the use of Blackle didn’t save significant power. The main issue is that, noted even in the original blog post it was based on, the only significant power savings happen when dealing with CRT—cathode ray tube—monitors, which are more or less obsolete. The Herald article stated that even with a CRT monitor the drop in power use with Blackle was a meager 7 watts. The tech writer found that with the far more common LCD—liquid crystal displays—the black screen actually used slightly more power.

A similar blog post by the Washington Post asked consulting firm the Cadmus Group to analyze the power savings. “We found that the color on screen mattered very little to the energy color consumption of the LCD monitor,” they reported. The CRT screen savings were between 5% and 20% using a darker screen.

In response to the criticism, Heap defended his claims. For one, he says that while LCD displays are much more popular overall, in some countries like China, the CRTs are still in use. But mainly, he claims the goal of the site is less about just saving power with the black screen, and more about raising awareness. “Even if the energy savings are small, they are representative of the need for each of us to start taking small steps to save energy,” he told the Post reporter. “My hope is that by setting Blackle as their home page people will be reminded of this need to save energy each time they go online.”

The site gained so much attention, that Google itself decided to weigh in. Bill Weihl, Green Energy Czar for Google, posted to its blog in August 2007:

“We applaud the spirit of the idea, but our own analysis as well as that of others shows that making the Google homepage black will not reduce energy consumption. To the contrary, on flat-panel monitors (already estimated to be 75% of the market), displaying black may actually increase energy usage. Detailed results from a new study confirm this.”

He did offer some tips for achieving true power savings while computing:

  • turn on the power management features. Virtually all computers today have the ability to switch into low-power modes automatically when they’re idle; very few computers have this capability enabled! Here’s how to do it on computers running Windows XP.
  • turn off your monitor and computer when you’re not using them
  • turn down the brightness on your monitor
  • make sure your next computer meets the efficiency standards of Climate Savers Computing (an efficient computer uses up to 50% less energy than a conventional one) to find the most efficient PCs available today, look for the words “EnergyStar 4.0 compliant.”

Regardless of the disputed facts of the matter, Blackle and many other similar sites are still up, in case you have a CRT monitor, or you just like the idea of a black-screened Google. Heap also started “Blackle Mag” a blog linked to the site that explores other ways to help the environment with lifestyle changes.

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