Earth Day Special: How green can IT be?

Data centre energy consumption consortium The Green Grid has been fast acquiring new members like Microsoft, Dell, APC, VMWare, Intel, and Novell that all hope to get green while pulling in the green. Here we examine what some of the new consortium’s members are up to, eco-wise.


Rebecca Brown, manager of environmental programs at Dell Canada, said the company has adopted the European Union’s Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) Directive and strives for energy efficiency in its products.
With a goal of 100 per cent landfill avoidance, Dell has had a recycling program in place since 2005 that offers recycling to its consumer customers at no cost, while corporate customers pay a small, cost-covering fee. Dell will pick up, ship, and process its used products; it works with the National Cristina Foundation to donate usable machines to local charities, and has recently debuted an ink cartridge recycling program. Dell is also a member of the EPA’s Climate Leaders Program.


Ross Chevalier, chief technology officer with Novell Canada, said the firm was keen to get in on The Green Grid, as Novell wants to reduce the ecological footprint of data centres everywhere. “Our offering builds in nicely with (eco-friendly) blade computing, and the use of Linux and virtualization reduces the ecological footprint,” he said. Novell’s software can run efficiently on less powerful hardware; users can also pick and choose the features that they want from their operating system, rather than having to upload a feature-heavy one that takes up a lot of power, according to Chevalier. He said that virtualization and server consolidation cuts down on cooling and power costs, as well as reducing the physical size of the data centre.


EMC is another member of the EPA’s Climate Leaders Program, according to Iain Anderson, the client solutions director for EMC Canada. He said that the company has pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by eight per cent per square foot by 2012. To get there, the company is using automated lighting and computer equipment, and energy-efficient cooling and power systems for their data centres. Intra-campus shuttles are provided at the company’s headquarters. EMC is also RoHS-compliant.


“It’s about (individual companies) being selfish,” said AMD senior strategist Larry Vertal about participation in The Green Grid. “The clear trend toward energy conservation in data centres is increasing at an incredible rate, and if we don’t get together to create some standards and best practices, it will — (we note,) selfishly — affect all our businesses.” However, Vertal said, AMD considers environmental stewardship a part of overall social responsibility. It targets the issue through “the products we produce, leadership in initiatives, and walking the talk,” he said. AMD has been pioneering energy-efficient chips since 2001 with the debut of its Direct Connect architecture. The company reduced its carbon dioxide emissions by 40 per cent between 2002 and 2007, and energy usage by 30 per cent in the same timeframe. AMD phased out its old fabrication plant in favour of upgrading an old one for energy efficiency and building a new one that is sensitive to emissions and reuses waste heat, and will help them get to its goal of reducing its PFC emissions by 50 per cent by 2010. AMD is also constructing a new corporate building that will run on 100 per cent renewable energy and will boast North America’s largest water reclamation facility. It has also surpassed its EPA Climate Leader Program goal of a 40 per cent reduction in greenhouse gases. “We believe that business can benefit from environmental actions…A business can do well as a business while doing good for the environment,” said Vertal.


Frances Edmonds, director of environmental programs with HP Canada, said that HP has pledged to reduce its emissions by 20 per cent below 2005 levels by 2010. HP has redesigned the packaging of its ink and laser cartridges, eliminating PVC, making it smaller and lighter, and increasing the recycled material content. “We estimate that, in North America alone, we have eliminated 37-million pounds of carbon dioxide in 2007,” said Edmonds. It also has an ink and toner cartridge recycling program in place. Edmonds said that HP is on track to achieve its goal this year of diverting a billion pounds of hardware and supplies from the landfill, courtesy of its rigourous recycling program. It is RoHS-compliant, and attempts to use as many non-hazardous and energy-efficient materials as possible.


Another Climate Leader with the EPA, IBM prides itself on its long-running commitment to greenness. Its first energy conservation policies were formalized in 1974, according to IBM’s director of corporate environmental affairs, Edan Dionne. She said that the company managed to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 40 per cent between 1999 and 2005. “Many people make ‘commitments,’” she said…although Dionne pointed out that IBM is committed to reducing its emissions by another 12 per cent by 2012. Energy conservation practices, such as energy efficient lightbulbs, semiconductors, and heating, cooling, and lighting systems, and purchasing renewable energy  are “really good for business,” said Dionne. “They offer a tremendous savings.” Revamped, greener product design includes more recycled components, earth-friendly powder coating (instead of liquid paint), and improved upgradeability, while the company’s recycling program-which was started in 1989-resulted in less than one per cent of recycled materials going to the landfill last year. (IBM was the first to reach the goal of diverting one billion pounds of product from the landfill, which it did a few years ago.)
Reaching outside parties who could comment on these companies’ green initiatives was difficult. The Ottawa-based Electronics Product Stewardship Canada declined to comment, as they felt it was a conflict of interest (several of the companies mentioned are its clients). Greenpeace Canada, based in Toronto, could not think of anyone who could comment. The Toronto Environmental Association acknowledged that companies need to do more for extended product responsibility, but it did not wish to comment on the companies’ respective green initiatives. Co-executive director Franz Hartmann said that he wouldn’t want to discuss corporate claims without third-party validation.

It can be difficult to rank companies in terms of their green factor, according to. John Laumer, a senior writer with the popular, influential Brooklyn-based Web site He said in an e-mail, “Corporate reputations are typically based on what industry would call ‘trailing indicators,’ i.e. where they were and not at all about what they are going. This results in a bumpy game of PR leapfrog. One year, Dell does a little better than Apple on green criteria and watches the bottom line to see if it made a difference. If not, they drop back into a ‘me too’ profile.  Then, Apple tries an innovation, and the rest of the pack positions around it. It’s like watching a tight speed skating race where breakaways are rare.”

When it comes to reaping the benefits of eco-initiatives, HP and Novell seem to be the companies in this group best poised to rake in the green-generated dollars, according to Drue Reeves, vice-president and research director for data centre strategies for the Midvale, Utah-based Burton Group. “HP has a slight edge because it has the tightest integration with management (software HP Power Manager)…(Novell will do well because they have) a virtualized operating system or platform — people looking at green data centres will look at consolidation,” he said.

Laumer is leery of tech corporations’ eagerness to promote their greenness, saying that it is difficult to parse out which are the truly committed environmental crusaders. “Are they trying to integrate green design and marketing into the corporate DNA?  Or have they just built a PR ‘ghetto’ that pumps out me-too press releases and keeps up with the pack of competitors?” he asks. “Do they understand life cycle valuations or are they focused only on operating impacts?  Have they invested real capital into breakthroughs or are they just trying to take credit for what regulations like RoHS are mandating for all producers?… Suddenly everyone is fawning over energy efficiency as if it were a new problem.”

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