Painting the town green

Agencies find creative ways to make their IT operations more environmentally friendly

The smallest changes can sometimes have a big effect. That’s a lesson federal agencies are learning as they take steps to reduce their energy use through smarter operations and green-minded technology acquisitions.

For example, the Agriculture Department started with a project to remind employees to unplug or turn off unused electronic devices each night. The USDA Unplugged program has reaped big electricity savings, said Boyd Rutherford, Agriculture’s assistant secretary for administration and chief acquisition officer.

“It’s the little things that people could do that were easy,” Rutherford said. “They don’t often think about it. It’s not in their bill.”

More agencies are becoming better stewards of the environment as they comply with provisions of Executive Order 13423, published in January 2007. Under the order, agencies purchasing new equipment must select EPEAT-registered products, enable equipment’s Energy Star power management features, implement policies to extend the life of existing equipment, and use environmentally sound practices for disposing of equipment.

Agencies are also buying more environmentally friendly computers under the Environmental Protection Agency’s Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT) program, said Juan Lopez, senior program analyst at the White House Office of the Federal Environmental Executive. 

“Agencies are moving very aggressively,” Lopez said.

The government hopes to put these policies in place by 2010, Lopez said. The Office of Management and Budget has a score card with red, yellow and green to track agencies’ progress, much like it does for management programs and other initiatives. The requirement for EPEAT products has also been included in federal acquisition regulations.

“The government is leading by example, purchasing hundreds of thousands of EPEAT computers,” Lopez said.

The new regulations are important because environmental priorities are no longer voluntary, he said. His office is also working with computer makers and state and local government organizations that are interested in the federal energy saving efforts.

Coordinating sustainability
To coordinate a USDA-wide green outlook, Rutherford created the Sustainable Operations Council, made up of senior managers from land-holding and fleet-operating agencies in the department.

The council highlights ongoing green activities at USDA and encourages employees to participate in them. The 2007 executive order also seeks to strengthen an environmental approach to federal transportation and property management in addition to the use of energy-efficient equipment.

USDA Unplugged was an experiment to see what effect an employee education program could have on the headquarters’ electricity use. On one weekday evening, USDA experienced a reduction of 9,000 kilowatt hours of electricity, Rutherford said. When officials tested the program on a Friday night, and over the weekend, headquarters had a reduction of 11,000 kw hours each for Saturday and Sunday.

“With 4,500 employees, plus contractors, in several buildings, it makes a big difference,” Rutherford said.

During the last fiscal year, USDA saved $500,000 in electricity costs with its energy-saving efforts, which included retrofitting light fixtures with compact fluorescent bulbs and LED lights in exit signs. That dollar amount didn’t come off the bottom line, but it did enable the department to minimize the effect of a power rate increase.

USDA also established a utility energy-savings contract, in which the utility helps cover the cost of energy conservation measures and is repaid from the agency’s cost savings, and is encouraging energy-savings performance contracts for some of its facilities nationwide.

The dri ve to unplug or turn off idle electronic devices also had an unintended but positive impact on system security. By working with Chuck Christopherson, USDA’s chief information officer, and his team, USDA was able to act green and secure, Rutherford said.

The plan to shut off desktop computers overnight at first caused some consternation. That’s when IT employees distribute antivirus and other software updates to those machines. So instead, the IT department deployed server-based system management software that lets staff control desktop computers remotely. 

“It’s an investment that pays for itself,” Rutherford said. “They can turn the computers on in the middle of the night to send patches and then turn the computers off.”

Rutherford then worked with the CIO’s office to ensure that the Energy Star power-savings settings were enabled on all computers with those features. Computers configured this way can go into hibernation mode and reduce energy consumption by about 95 percent while remaining available to IT staff for patching and maintenance.

In July, Christopherson and Rutherford issued a joint memo requiring CIOs at all USDA agencies to make sure that desktop computers were set to energy conservation settings. USDA is the only department to have done this to date, Rutherford said. It took a year to make the requirements in the memo a reality because the CIO’s office needed to work with agency CIOs to reconcile problems that emerged between the Energy Star settings and some encryption software.

“The environmental and security provisions had to be synchronized appropriately,” he said.

Bigger fish
The largest energy savings for most agencies will come by consolidating multiple data centers, but current mandates do not address this issue specifically, said Steve Picot, federal area manager for data center solutions at Cisco Systems.

“The language of the [executive] order is ambiguous in terms of the scope of it,” Picot said. EPEAT does not address data center computing, and Energy Star is concerned with individual device efficiencies, he added.

In a centralized enterprise data center, IT managers could take a more holistic view of the environment to identify energy-saving opportunities, including the interplay of computers, networks, storage, power distribution and cooling gear.

Another challenge for agencies is that their procurement schedules introduce inefficient device life cycles in the data center by calling for upgrades of one component or one class of components at a time.

Agencies should consider virtualization as part of any energy efficiency solution, Picot said. Virtualization enables data center managers to smash computing silos and consolidate workloads on fewer servers instead of building bigger data centers or more of them, he said.

Agencies also need leadership, such as a chief sustainability officer, to underscore that virtualization and other alternatives combine the arguments for cost, environmental, operational and financial efficiencies, he said. It will take agency leaders to fill in gaps in the executive order, Picot said.

USDA provides a good example of the challenges data centers pose and the types of solutions managers can use, Rutherford said. The department operates a wide range of data centers, from purpose-built, sophisticated facilities with raised floors to conventional, repurposed offices filled with servers and cooled by window-mounted air conditioners that supplement central air conditioning systems. Half of USDA’s electric usage in headquarters is from data centers, Rutherford said.

“All the efforts we’ve taken, say, to changing out lights and getting people to unplug those cell phone chargers have been overwhelmed by the data centers and getting more so as computers become more powerful,& qu ; he said.

USDA began a program to consolidate the smaller data centers into four enterprise centers, one each in Beltsville, Md.; Fort Collins, Colo.; Kansas City, Mo.; and New Orleans. The original goals for the consolidation were to close facilities that were not designed to house IT equipment and to increase overall IT management efficiency by centralizing operations. Energy efficiency was not an original driver for the plan, but it has become an important component, Rutherford said.  

USDA agencies that operate the small data centers scheduled for closing are developing schedules for the migration of their workload to one of the four enterprise data centers or to a commercial data center.
Rutherford started a process Oct. 1 for “persuasion with consequences,” a strategy that stems from the fact that government CIOs don’t pay for the office space or power they use from their budgets. IT appropriations are separate from those for programs and buildings, which include maintenance and utilities.

CIOs “don’t have an incentive to cut back on energy,” Rutherford said.

USDA paid $4.5 million in electricity last year for its buildings in downtown Washington. More than half of that was for data centers, and 75 percent of off-hours usage is data centers.

Under Rutherford’s persuasion-with-consequences plan, if a data center uses more power per square foot than what the typical office uses, Rutherford will bill them. 

“We’re metering these data centers, and we’re billing the excess,” he said. “Our appropriation doesn’t cover this extraordinary use of utilities.” It will make them look at the consequences of having data centers in an office space that was never designed for it, he said.

Bills for the excess electricity usage should start going out the end of this month, Rutherford said. He expects that it will take several years to move all USDA agencies and their programs to enterprise data centers. Meanwhile, money is always an issue.

“We just want to get them out of the building that was built in the 1930s that was never designed for uses like this and is in a flood zone,” he said.

Buying green
Some agencies are pursuing energy-efficiency goals by including EPEAT-compliant equipment in their larger contracts. EPA started last month a new contract called Customer Technology Solutions (CTS) that will standardize equipment for 14,000 desktop computers, said Holly Elwood, headquarters lead for EPA’s EPEAT program.

CTS will provision equipment registered with EPEAT and enable Energy Star on all monitors, computers and other devices equipped with those features, she said. CTS complies with other environmental and energy-savings programs, including EPA’s Environmental Management Systems, the Federal Electronics Challenge and the executive order for greening government.

For its part, in July USDA revised its departmentwide blanket purchase agreement so that all desktop computers sold under the pact are EPEAT-registered to conform to a department regulation that requires that 95 percent of computers purchased be EPEAT registered. NASA revised its Outsourcing Desktop Initiative IT contract to require EPEAT products. The Energy Department achieved those benchmarks in 2007, during which 96 percent of Energy’s computers and monitors purchases were EPEAT products, Elwood said.   

EPEAT will expand in two years to cover imaging equipment, televisions and, possibly, servers. Development of the environmental standards for these products is set to begin this winter, said Elwood, and she encouraged federal IT professionals to get involved with a standards-development workgroup.

Congress has gotten involved, too. Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-Calif.) introduced in October a bill that would codify the EPEAT prov cutive Order 13423. The Federal Agency Environmental Procurement Act stipulates that the federal government will purchase consumer electronic equipment only from companies that have a recycling program that meets EPEAT standards, Bilbray said.

Agencies have been procuring Energy Star equipment for several years now, and EPEAT-registered products are all Energy Star-qualified, “so we are buying energy-efficient equipment in the federal community today,” Elwood said.

The executive order directs agencies to enable and maintain the power management features on this equipment to meet energy conservation goals. Agencies are laying out their strategies to do this in their Electronics Stewardship Implementation Plans, which they submit to OMB.

“The IT community has a great opportunity to reduce the federal community’s impact on the environment by helping us enable and maintain power management features,” Elwood said.

USDA’s Rutherford has tried to make sure that the department’s Sustainable Operations Council does not become top-heavy and stifle innovation at the facilities level, where many sustainability efforts were already under way. He envisions having the council’s senior managers recognize and share the lessons from the grass-roots efforts and then advocate similar efforts in their organizations.

Rutherford said he believes federal employees are willing to do what they can to reduce power consumption, cooperation which is not necessarily the case with other government mandates and directives. He surmised that most employees follow the guidelines because they like being energy conscious, but there is a small percentage who don’t cooperate on their own. The key to getting them on board is to show them how their efforts are connected to other benefits.

“If we can reduce our energy costs, then it may mean that we can repair the bathroom quicker or replace the carpet quicker. Sometimes people have to feel it to appreciate it,” Rutherford said. 

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