Energy & Environment

Goodnight Computer

Your computer has an off-button. But if you're like most people, you don't use it very often. Maybe you like to leave certain programs or...
February 28, 2009

Your computer has an off-button. But if you're like most people, you don't use it very often. Maybe you like to leave certain programs or files open so that you can easily pick up working where you last left off. Maybe your computer's start-up process is frustratingly slow. But leaving these devices on all the time is a problem. A typical desktop computer wastes almost half of the energy it draws, mostly in the form of heat. Turning a computer off when you're done for the day -- and utilizing built-in "sleep" or "hibernate" modes -- can reduce the amount of energy consumed by 60 percent. Still, many employees prefer to leave their computers on all night rather than logging off and shutting down.

More and more states are trying to change that. Faced with volatile energy prices and a growing budget crisis, governments are trying to increase efficiency wherever they can. That goal points quickly to all sorts of "green IT" policies, such as buying more energy-saving computers and servers and using that equipment more efficiently. The notion that these initiatives might be good for the environment seems secondary to most of the people pushing them. Rather, green IT is mostly about the bottom line. At a recent conference of the National Association of State CIOs (NASCIO), 68 percent of the technology officers in attendance said they were implementing green initiatives in order to reduce energy costs -- not to combat climate change or reverse environmental damage.

The good news is that there's a lot of low-hanging fruit: Governments have lagged behind the private sector when it comes to technological efficiency. But what CIOs are finding is that there's only so much they can accomplish with leaner and better hardware. A lot of the green IT idea simply comes down to working with employees, changing old habits and, yes, getting people more acquainted with the off-button. "You can only do so much from a central perspective," says Kansas CIO Denise Moore. "But there's so much more you can accomplish when your employees have the mindset that their individual actions really are tied in to the state's overall energy use."

Green computing is not just about desktop hardware. One set of priorities centers around shrinking the total number of electronic devices that need to be working at any one time. Right now, according to NASCIO, more than 35 states are involved in or planning an effort to consolidate some aspect of their IT infrastructure. That can be as simple as eliminating excess machines. Michigan, for example, recently removed 8,000 unnecessary fax machines and printers from its system. Consolidation also can involve streamlining data centers, which are huge facilities that require massive amounts of energy to keep the equipment cool.

Another green IT strategy is called "virtualization." This means getting numerous applications, which might otherwise require their own server, to run on one machine. Virtualization, like data-center consolidation, can dramatically reduce the amount of power required to run IT systems. Moore says Kansas has cut the electricity consumption of its computing resources by over 70 percent through consolidation and virtualization of servers in the past few years.

But state CIOs also are focusing on energy consumption at a desktop-by-desktop level. In Minnesota, that's where technology directors started, with policies aimed at making each computer run more efficiently, says state CIO Gopal Khanna. "In our green IT efforts, Minnesota began with the desktop, realizing immediate savings through energy-efficient standards and through power-usage policies."

Initially, Minnesota's efforts centered around a new policy requiring all executive-branch employees to turn off their computers when they're done for the day. The state estimated it would save about $50 a year per computer. But those savings weren't guaranteed -- they would materialize only if employees complied. Enforcement of the new policy was left to agency managers, some of whom took it more seriously than others. "It wasn't a campaign," says Cathy de Moll, a spokeswoman for the state's Office of Enterprise Technology. "It was just, -This is what's happening. This is what you're going to do.'"

The state of Michigan has gone through a similar experience. Two years ago, Governor Jennifer Granholm issued an executive order aimed at decreasing the state's energy consumption. Among other things, the order instructed state employees to power off their desktop computers when not in use. However, short of having someone walk around cubicles after hours, flipping the switch on all 55,000 of Michigan's desktop computers, it's been hard for the state to ensure consistency.

That's about to change. Michigan is implementing a new program that essentially removes the human factor. New technology, which the state hopes to have in place by the end of the year, will allow managers in the central Department of Information Technology to monitor usage of every computer in the state's network -- and switch idle computers to sleep mode. This kind of technology is already popular with private-sector companies, but is relatively new in government. "Up until this point, it's been up to agency managers to make sure the policy is being implemented," says Judy Odett, the design and delivery director for the state's Office of Automation Services. "Now, we're taking it to the next step, actually leveraging technology to enforce it."

Environmental concerns may not top the list of reasons why states are pursuing green IT initiatives. But the same policies can play a part in reducing a government's carbon footprint -- something that dozens of governors have pledged to do. With that goal in mind, several states have joined a private-sector effort called the Climate Savers Computing Initiative.

Started in 2007 by Google and Intel, Climate Savers is a group of corporations and organizations that is committed to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions through the technology they purchase or produce. Members commit to buy only power-saving computer products and to employ power-management strategies to use those devices more efficiently. The organization's ambitious goal is to reduce global CO2 emissions from computers by 54 million tons annually by 2010. It's quite an aggressive aim -- 2010 is, after all, next year. But with 350 corporate affiliates already on board, the group has reason to be optimistic.

Although Climate Savers was conceived as a private-sector venture, Colorado, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota and Oregon have signed on, as well. So have a few localities, including Seattle and Riverside, California. Governments can play a crucial role in the effort, says Climate Savers executive director Pat Tiernan. "States can be -- and need to be -- a model. In terms of how they participate, they're not all that different from private-sector businesses. But because they have such a high profile and a more direct connection to their shareholders, states have more of an opportunity to heighten the awareness of how important a step this is."

Moore, the Kansas CIO, agrees. "It's always important for states to take a lead," she says. Joining Climate Savers was a way for her state to help solidify its commitment to green IT. "There's already an awareness that people have about energy issues. Especially as gas prices went up last year, people personally became more aware of it. We're under pressure to reduce our impact, and this is a big step in that direction."


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