Energy & Environment

Keeping Government Green

As the economic crisis deepens for states and localities, many governments are being forced to delay investment in new green IT products and initiatives. Thanks...
by | March 1, 2010

As the economic crisis deepens for states and localities, many governments are being forced to delay investment in new green IT products and initiatives. Thanks to the upfront costs associated with new technologies, energy efficiency has become a lower-priority issue for public-sector agencies over the past year.

The number of IT professionals who identify energy efficiency as a "very important consideration when purchasing new equipment" dropped from 34 percent in 2008 to 26 percent in 2009, according to a survey conducted last fall by technology and IT services vendor CDW-G. And in a November survey of state technology officers by the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO), "budget and cost control" rose to the top of the priority list for 2010. Green IT, which had ranked No. 7 on the list the previous year, has now fallen out of the top 10.

While environmentalism may have ebbed as an IT priority, there's still quite the green tint to state and local technology operations right now. The focus is on finding efficiencies to save money, but many of those cost-saving initiatives also happen to be eco-friendly, says Paul Christman, director of state and local government sales for Quest software. "Right now, public-sector CIOs joke that it's not green because it's environmentally friendly," he says. "It's green because it saves you money. If you can save money by decreasing your power costs and heating and cooling costs, great. All those things are good, and they can also be tagged as 'green.'"

The push to consolidate multiple, energy-wasting data centers into fewer, more efficient facilities is something states have been talking about for decades. But some real progress has been made in the past few years, as states have redoubled their efforts to increase efficiency. Indiana, a leader in consolidation efforts, has already reduced its data centers from seven sites to one. Michigan, another progressive state in this area, has consolidated some 4,000 servers scattered around the state into just three data centers, saving the state $19 million so far and freeing up 30,000 square feet of office space. Now the state is planning a single, massive "information and technology center." The move will allow Michigan to deliver a broad scope of IT services to all its agencies, with a greatly reduced carbon footprint.

The majority of states are now following suit, according to NASCIO, which reports that most states are either implementing consolidation efforts or planning to do so. Massachusetts, for example, set a goal of consolidating 183 data centers into two, an effort the state hopes will be "substantially complete" by 2012. California hopes to help stem some of its massive budget deficit by consolidating its 400 data facilities.

There's another facet of consolidation, though, that has less to do with brick-and-mortar buildings. Sharing services across agency lines can reduce a state's energy consumption. E-mail systems are usually one of the first processes states turn to in an effort to share services. States such as Michigan, California and Indiana have streamlined their multiple, agency-specific e-mail units into statewide systems. In late 2007, Missouri completed its transition from 14 agency e-mail systems to just one, resulting in an immediate savings or cost avoidance of more than $2 million, as well as a 70 percent reduction in the infrastructure required.

Consolidating data servers into a single location certainly is more efficient, but boosting the efficiency of the individual servers themselves is really the key to reducing energy consumption. That's why so many states and localities have implemented virtualization initiatives - allowing multiple operations to run on a single physical server. Virtualization is what has allowed Indiana to reduce the number of servers it uses by one-third. And it's how the publicly owned Austin Energy in Texas uses only 150 servers to run applications that otherwise would require 600 servers. "Virtualization is the biggest issue, because it really hits the two components of cost savings and green IT," says Bert Jarreau, CIO of the National Association of Counties. "It allows you to use 70 percent of one system versus 10 percent of 10 systems."

Maximizing servers' potential this way already has some states looking beyond virtualization to cloud computing, in which data may not be stored at state facilities at all. Multiple governments could share one cloud, or a government may store information in a private-sector cloud. The concept itself is no more novel than Web-based e-mail, in which data is stored on the Internet. "The technology of cloud computing has been around for a number of years," says Christman. "But cheap storage, faster servers and higher-speed connection have all made it a real possibility now." Christman adds that cloud storage is really nothing more than large-scale shared services via the Web.

Two of the nation's most technologically progressive states - Michigan and Utah - are moving forward with plans for developing their own clouds, which would host information for state agencies as well as cities, counties and education systems. Colorado and New York also are looking at whether a private cloud - with state agencies as the anchor tenants - would make sense. The great advantage of these state-run clouds is that they mitigate the privacy and cyber-security issues of turning public data over to a third-party company. "With cloud computing, there are lots of concerns about, 'Where's my data going to be residing?'" says Jarreau. "People are very, very concerned about it being hosted outside the state."

Cloud storage and desktop virtualization don't just reduce governments' carbon footprint by reducing the need for energy-guzzling data centers. These technologies also help pave the way for another kind of green IT initiative: telecommuting. If employees could accomplish their jobs without needing to come into the office - or not as often - then governments' overall environmental impact could be greatly reduced. Fewer in-office employees means lower energy use and more efficient use of space, as well as fewer cars on the road.

Critical to making telecommuting a truly viable option, though, is investing in high-speed broadband, says Seattle Chief Technology Officer Bill Schrier, who has advocated broadband-to-the-home implementation for years. "Many of us have a high-definition television at home," he said at a recent Governing conference. "Well, slap a high-def camera on there, and what have you got? A two-way, high-def office environment. But you can't do it without broadband. Broadband is the key." Schrier says the city may begin implementing a fiber plan-possibly funded in part by federal stimulus funds-later this year.

Similar to telecommuting, the notion of truncated workweeks seeks to reduce government energy use by shortening the amount of time an employee spends in the office. So far, the government that has most embraced this idea is Utah, which is now 18 months into its plan to close state government on Fridays, eliminating the need to heat or cool many state buildings one day a week. While first-year savings fell far short of the anticipated $3 million, the state nonetheless reduced its energy consumption by 13 percent in the program's first year. Technology was a central part of Utah's decision: Citizens can now access more than 850 state services online, making it much more palatable for agencies to close on Fridays.

Sometimes the best solutions are the most obvious ones. Some state and local governments are achieving tremendous reductions in their energy use simply by encouraging - or mandating - that employees turn off their desktop computers at the end of the day. Minnesota, for example, launched an initiative to get employees to power down, with a predicted cost savings of $50 annually per computer. Other places have gone further. Seattle, for example, now utilizes software that reduces power to desktops when they're not in use. Since putting the new software in place a couple of years ago, the city has reduced the energy consumption of its desktops by more than 35 percent.

Zach Patton  |  Executive Editor
zpatton@governing.com  | 

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