The Power Switch

The emerging topic for state CIOs is how to reconfigure desktops and computing practices to save energy.
October 2007
Ellen Perlman
By Ellen Perlman  |  Former columnist
Ellen Perlman was a GOVERNING staff writer and technology columnist.

All is quiet in the state office building. The janitorial staff is gone, the lights are off and employees are home asleep. Suddenly there's a whirring sound. The hard drive starts blinking. The monitor lights up. Somehow, the computer has turned itself on, and changes are being made to its software. Hackers? International terrorists? Harry Potter sorcery? No, it's just the state being green.

This is the future for Indiana, now in the process of buying new PCs for the entire state. The new desktop computers can be powered off every night and turned on only when needed, by a technology called "firmware." Currently, state employees are told to log off when they leave but not to shut down their computers. That way, unused machines suck up energy all night long--wasting scads of energy. The new computers, however, will be hooked up to the stealth technology that can "wake" them in the middle of the night if there's a need to apply patches or perform other software tasks. In addition, by standardizing all computing technology over the next four years, it will be easier to implement and patch software.

With a heightened awareness worldwide about energy conservation and global warming, state and local governments are jumping on the bandwagon with their IT equipment and purchases. Technology recycling has been underway for about five years. Now, many states are looking at front-end environmental friendliness. It's an emerging topic for state chief information officers. While governors may not be talking about the greening of IT per se, many are discussing energy efficiency, alternative energy and buying recycled or recyclable products.

Now it's up to the technology and purchasing departments to find ways to fold that notion into their practices. Going green has a lot of aspects and, "some are tougher than others," says John Gillispie, chief operating officer for Iowa's Information Technology Enterprise. For instance, with data centers huge consumers of power, some states are looking to conserve by building high-efficiency data centers. Some are looking into IT purchasing practices. Others are trying to figure out how to idle government computers when they're not being used. "My sense is that this issue is going to continue to gain traction and interest," Gillispie says.

In January, Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius issued an executive directive that work-station computers that have been inactive for four or more hours be shut off. The notion is, according to the order, "relatively small changes in our daily energy use can have a significant impact over the long run." Turning off computers, she points out, is a no-cost method of saving energy.

States also are looking to a new green technology standard called "epeat," or "electric products environmental assessment tool." The top or "gold" standard has 51 different environmental criteria for product manufacturers, such as eliminating unnecessary lead, cadmium and mercury in the computers; using a minimum of 90 percent reusable or recyclable material; and requiring computers to be easier to upgrade or disassemble, so that the energy, resources and pollution involved in manufacturing a new one are reduced. More information is available at

About 20 manufacturers meet the standard, offering more than 600 computer products from desktops to laptops to monitors. Although ratings are done on the honor system, subject to review by a nonprofit council, the products are likely to save some energy. The standard also includes a product "take-back" service that guarantees computers will be recycled. To encourage such behavior among consumers, California, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and others have passed e-waste disposal regulations, and several other states are considering them.

Indiana has refined its recycling of state computers by changing its surplus policy. Currently, schools and the public have a chance to buy the old computers through the Department of Administration. In the future, discarded computers will be sent to prison workers who will wipe the drives clean and determine if they're worthy to pass on or should be disposed of. That will save the wasted packing and sending off of a big batch of old computers, when many of them will just be junked upon arrival.

In the state's view, every little bit helps. The Indiana Office of Technology has arranged for bulk delivery from the distributor providing the new computers. That saves on extra, individual packaging, says Meghan O'Connor, department spokeswoman. "It's a small effort as far as boxes go, but it's one step."

Ellen Perlman
Ellen Perlman | Former columnist |