Three simple ways IT workers can cut their energy costs

You’ve heard the all talk about green IT. But you haven’t really had to pay attention. Chances are that being green isn’t a big deal at your company, and anyway you’re too busy to think about anything so abstract as your carbon footprint.
But what happens if that changes? What if you get word that your company has decided to decrease its environmental impact- to “go green”-in response to increasing pressure from stakeholders, and the threat of government regulation. This is a top to bottom sweep, and you are on notice: start cutting carbon emissions. What do you do?

One thing is clear: Massive efforts to reengineer corporate practices top to bottom overnight are not likely to succeed. Experts say you should approach becoming greener as you would any long-term project: plan out a strategy for where you’d like to go and then start making incremental changes that, over the long run, will get you there.

As Mark Buckley, Vice President for Environmental Affairs at Staples, noted an interview published by EPA last year, companies make changes to their environmental impact by focusing on changing corporate culture rather than on creating a “paradigm shift.”

Some things that many organizations already do-like reducing infrastructure demands through server virtualization-and some that are less common-such as deploying more effective power and cooling distribution in the datacenter-are components of an overall strategy to reduce IT’s carbon footprint. (For more, see The Greening of IT and CIO’s Green IT Survey: Cost Cutting, Social Responsibility Drive Environmental Moves.)

But there are three areas other than the data center where IT can exercise environmental leadership-and get good business results in the process.

1. Let Desktops Live Longer, and Turn Them Off at Night

According to market research firm IDC (a sister company to’s publisher), the lifetime for a PC in corporate America is three to four years. If you can extend that lifecycle, you’ll contribute more to the environment than you would by ripping out your PC infrastructure to buy new energy-efficient machines.

A 2004 study by the United Nations University showed that almost 2 tons of material, including chemicals, water, and fossil fuels, go into building the average desktop PC and monitor. That’s more than the weight of the average mid-sized car, and, the study says, accounts for most of the resources and energy consumed over the machine’s lifecycle. Meanwhile, many PC components are destroyed when obsolete equipment gets recycled.

Keeping older machines in service by simply extending the lifecycle or upgrading components can save five to 20 times more energy than by decommissioning and recycling old gear, the United Nations University study noted.

Another important component in an environmentally-sound desktop strategy is to turn the machines off when they aren’t in use. This sounds like a gimme, but it isn’t, says Matt Heinz, senior director of marketing with Verdiem, which sells PC power management software. “Eighty percent of users end up turning the default power management settings that ship with new PCs off within 60 days because it gets in their way,” Heinz says.

Furthermore, IT departments often like to push automated upgrades and security patches out at night or during off-peak times. Many enterprises leave their systems on all the time to ensure these updates take place as planned, especially with older systems that lack robust built-in capabilities to reliably wake up the machines remotely, or in settings or when systems have to be accessed remotely outside a firewall.

Printing company Quad/Graphics, a Verdiem customer, runs 4,500 PCs in 12 printing locations and 14 sales offices nationwide. The company saved nearly US$72,000 in power costs in 2007 by turning off PCs when they weren’t in use, says Quad/Graphics spokeswoman Claire Ho. “We use 1.26 million fewer kilowatt hours from the electrical grid,” adds Ho. That’s the equivalent, according to the EPA’s greenhouse gas equivalency calculator, of taking 179 cars off the road.

2. Buy Equipment with Energy Efficiency in Mind

According to a recent CIO survey, most IT shops recycle. Fifty-five percent of respondents say they use vendors’ recycling or take-back programs, or otherwise dispose of equipment responsibly. But few organizations take energy efficiency or manufacturing processes into account when buying new gear-in fact, only 32 percent do so regularly. You can, without much effort, look for energy efficient equipment when it’s time to buy.

According to a recent report issued by the Butler Group, an IT research firm, companies should ask vendors about the use of toxic materials in their products, and about the recyclability of the equipment. However, says Mark Blowers, who directs the company’s enterprise architectures practice, it’s more important to open communication with your vendors about the toxics in their products rather than to mandate a particular toxics profile.

“You have to be realistic about what you specify, and balance your environmental goals against increased costs,” he says. Over time, as vendors realize that customers care about these issues, they’ll adapt their product offerings.

3. Stop Wasting Paper

The Wilderness Society, a public lands advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., set double-sided printing as the default on all of its printers as part of its drive to reduce the organization’s carbon footprint. Such a move can cut paper use in half.

The group encourages saving even more paper by urging employees to use narrower margins on printed documents. And it manages the power printers consume. “Printers used to be left on all night long, and over the weekend,” says Don Barry, executive vice president of The Wilderness Society. “Now, printers go to sleep after 5 minutes of non-use.”

The Butler Group survey found that at companies with the most environmentally-friendly printing practices 12 people shared each printer and each person used only 500 pages of paper each month. In companies with the worst practices, printers were shared among only 3 people who each used 2,000 pages per month.

Blowers says an organization can start to reduce its print volume by educating end users about paper use, and by adopting a top-down push in the organization to reduce unnecessary printing.

Other Steps to Energy Efficiency

Other steps companies are taking include videoconferencing, to reduce the pollution caused by travel to inter-office meetings, and telecommuting to keep staff off the roads.

As you improve one area of your operation, new opportunities for improvement will pop up.

However, says Joe Muehlbach, corporate director of facilities and environmental policy at Quad/Graphics, it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that, whatever you do, environmental changes must ultimately support the business. “When we start looking at a project, we look for positive impact on both the business and the environment,” he says. “If it fails either test, the project doesn’t start.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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