PORTLAND, Ore. -- A Portland Community College student wants to stop the waste of electricity that powers idle school computers when students and staff aren't around.

Jason A. Smith, who is studying to be an electrical engineer, proposes having the computers automatically switch to standby mode if no one uses them for 15 minutes.

As simple as the idea sounds, it could save PCC a lot of money in energy costs. Smith estimates that the energy saved will represent, conservatively, $50,000.

"That's a teacher's salary," he told the Daily Journal of Commerce in Portland.

The average campus computer draws 105 watts of electricity when no one is using it, he said.

Multiply that by the 2,250 computers on the PCC Sylvania campus, and you get more than 236 kilowatts of energy.

Computers that can go into low-power standby mode, however, use only about 2 percent of the energy of powered-up computers two or three watts, Smith said.

As the student senate representative for sustainability, Smith is uniquely positioned to do address the issue. He also has some skills that should help him take a scientific look at the computers on campus.

He already has pre-engineering and general science associate's degrees, and he is finishing his math, science and engineering prerequisite classes before starting at Oregon State University this fall.

"I did a bunch of tests," he said. "I took the watt meter on campus and tested the monitors and everything to see how much energy they use."

The next step for the project is determining when and how the computers will download updates since they are programmed to do so at night when staff and students are using them.

Energy Star, the federal energy conservation program, has free software available to address the issue. The problem is the college first must sign a potentially complicated agreement.

Similar software also is sold but it would cost $8 a computer to install it.

"We're trying to go the free route," Smith said, especially because saving the school money is one of the main reasons for his work.

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