Government IT goes green

A growing number of environmentally conscious federal IT programs try to achieve la vida verde

Opportunities are growing for information technology managers to be nice to the Earth. Through several new federal programs, IT managers can do their part to combat the eco-evils of society’s increasing dependence on computers.

The concept of environmentally responsible IT is referred to as “clean technology,” “green computing” or “environmental IT.” Examples include operating systems that shut down computer processors when the computers are not in use, computers certified as environmentally sensitive, energy-efficient servers and e-cycling services.

In January, the Bush administration created a new score card to rate agencies’ progress on implementing environmentally friendly policies, procedures and practices. The Office of Management and Budget and the Office of the Federal Environmental Executive (OFEE) will use the annual score card to grade agencies on their environmental stewardship, including the extent to which they buy green electronics.

The new score cards haven’t generated much buzz yet, but officials say green government IT is high on the administration’s agenda. “We are very aggressively promoting them internally to the agencies, and they are being taken seriously,” said Ed Pinero, the federal environmental executive. “But because they measure internal progress on internal goals, they are not as publicly visible as some other efforts.”

Apart from the administration’s score card efforts, federal employees have begun contacting the Environmental Protection Agency to ask how they can make their IT departments more environmentally friendly, said Liza Hearns, branch chief for desktop and collaboration solutions at the EPA’s Office of Environmental Information.

“In conferences and meetings, questions from agencies have changed from ‘Why?’ to ‘How?’” she said. Agency employees are starting to ask, How do we ensure that IT products are environmentally safe? How do we bring green concepts into IT operations? How do we make sure that old electronics leaving federal offices are disposed of in the most environmentally sensitive way?

When the EPA held a five-month electronic recycling contest, ending on Earth Day 2006, it named 15 winning federal facilities at various agencies, including the Coast Guard; the Defense, Energy, Justice and Transportation departments; the Department of Veterans Affairs; and the EPA. In the period between Nov. 11, 2005, and April 22, 2006, federal agencies reused and recycled about 2 million pounds of electronics.

Eco-conscious managers

Another voluntary initiative, the Federal Electronics Challenge, which the EPA and OFEE began in 2003, encourages federal facilities to purchase green electronics, use them in an environmentally respectful way and dispose of them in a manner that minimizes harm to the environment. “As the Federal Electronics Challenge has become more well-known, more federal agencies have become interested in how to make their IT shops more environmentally responsible,” Hearns said.

EPA officials said the federal government, which buys more than $62 billion worth of electronic equipment and services annually, can lead the rest of the country in handling electronics in an environmentally responsible manner.

Hearns said IT managers can start becoming environmentally responsible by assessing every decision to purchase new electronics. For example, she said, IT managers need to ask, “Is that new computer really needed or can you upgrade the existing hardware to fill the need?”

IT managers can look for alternative ways to provide comparable functionality, Hearns said. That could mean switching to a centralized desktop management system by converting older PCs into thin-client terminals. Or it could mean providing a multifunctional device, such as a Research in Motion BlackBerry with a built-in cell phone instead of a BlackBerry and cell phone. It might also mean providing employees with one laptop PC for use at work and home instead of assigning each employee a computer for work and a separate one for home use.

When buying new computers, Hearns said IT managers can look for products that adhere to a new voluntary manufacturing standard for environmentally friendly computers: the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool. The EPEAT standard, which the nonprofit Green Electronics Council developed with funding from the EPA, informs buyers about computer products that are environmentally efficient.

When they set up new computers, IT managers should activate the computers’ energy-saving features, she said. Free tools, such as EZ Save and EZ GPO, are available to help managers monitor power consumption on an entire network.

Managers can also establish a power-down policy for their offices and remind employees to turn off their computers at the end of the workday. She added that they can work with IT specialists who might need to keep PCs on overnight to install software patches to determine how often that has to occur and perhaps minimize the time it takes.

“The biggest chunk of potential electricity savings for federal IT people is getting desktops to go to sleep when they are not being used.” said Bruce Nordman, a researcher at DOE’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory who consults for the federal government’s Energy Star program. Energy Star, an EPA/DOE program, is a product-labeling effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by helping consumers identify energy-efficient products.

IT managers can also purchase network printers, reduce the number of local printers and recycle toner cartridges, Hearns said.

When IT equipment becomes obsolete, managers can work with their agency’s property division to donate the equipment to schools through the General Services Administration’s Computers for Learning Program, she said. If the equipment cannot be reused, managers can send it to environmentally responsible recycling facilities.

Each of those steps represents a modest solution to eco-pollution. In addition to those activities, the federal government is engaged in a variety of long-term solutions.

In-Q-Tel, a private, nonprofit venture-capital firm that the CIA sponsors, invests in at least one company dedicated to green computing. That company is Nextreme Thermal Solutions, which develops technology for cooling microprocessors and improving power efficiency.

The company designs embedded thermoelectric coolers (eTECs) that operate as miniature heat pumps for cooling high-performance integrated circuits, said Bob Conner, vice president of marketing and business development at Nextreme. They cool hot spots on microprocessors, graphics processors and application-specific integrated circuits. Nextreme hopes someday to use eTECs as power generators for converting waste heat into electricity, Conner said.

La vida verde

Several DOD agencies and contractors are evaluating Nextreme’s products. Conner said that the military could deploy eTECs to increase per-watt performance under conditions in which harsh temperatures and limited airflow create overheating.

Such an investment could pay off in the future with more efficient power consumption. Meanwhile, data-center energy consumption has emerged as one of the biggest and least-studied eco-electronics challenges. It is also one of the costliest issues facing federal IT departments.

In addition to the Energy Star program, the EPA supports an industry initiative to measure the energy efficiency of servers. The agency gathered major chipmakers, server vendors and researchers on March 27 for a meeting that eventually led to the drafting of a protocol.

Nordman, who was one of the researchers involved, said the next phase of Energy Star will identify requirements for power-supply efficiency, idle power and power management. It it scheduled to take effect in mid-2007.

Jonathan Koomey, a staff scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley Lab and a consulting professor at Stanford University, led the industry benchmarking effort. “The idea is to create a standardized power curve,” Koomey said.

The first step in managing the amount of energy consumed by servers is identifying the right metrics, he said. Agencies would be able to reference the measurement standard in their purchasing requirements and ask vendors to adhere to the energy performance specified by the standard.

“In the next year or two, I hope we are going to see serious movement on incorporating server energy specifications into server purchasing behavior,” Koomey said. “The customers really are demanding it.”

Software for creating sustainable buildingsThe government recently began requiring all federal facilities to meet a set of standards for sustainable buildings. New construction projects and substantial renovations administered by the General Services Administration must now be certified through the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System of the Green Building Council. The LEED grading system serves as a Good Housekeeping Seal for green buildings. The principles of sustainable design include minimizing nonrenewable energy consumption, using environmentally safe products, conserving water and enhancing indoor air quality.

“Sustainable design addresses how to meet current needs…without compromising the resources available to future generations,” said Juliana Slye, director of Auto-desk Government. Autodesk makes computer modeling applications that are used to design and manage energy-efficient, environmentally friendly buildings.

Autodesk’s building software develops 3-D computer models that provide information about how buildings will consume energy throughout their lifespans, Slye said. The software also generates hypothetical comparisons between new construction and renovation options to help facilities managers determine whether to construct a new building or renovate an older one.

GSA and the State Department are among Autodesk’s customers. The architecture firm for the U.S. federal courthouse in Jackson, Miss., recently installed the software to complete the design and environmental analysis of the courthouse’s new facility, Slye said.

“In designing a new federal building, architects can create a 3-D model to predict the energy required to heat, cool and light a building, given data on everything from its layout to the color of the exterior to the hours of sunlight shining through its windows,” she said.

Engineers can simulate conservation elements such as ventilation flow and natural lighting, enabling designers to envision how each characteristic would change if the building were to be modified, for example, with tinted windows or a certain type of paint.

— Aliya Sternstein


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