How the Energy Dept. Can Change Its Wasteful Ways

It wasn't so long ago that U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced $256 million in stimulus funding for industrial energy-efficiency initiatives, $50 million of which will go to research, development, and demonstration projects aimed at helping cut the energy used by information and communication technologies. But just a week later, the Energy Dept. released the results of an energy audit of its own IT practices—and the picture wasn't a pretty one.

Auditors noted that the DOE could save more than $23 million annually at the seven facilities surveyed, just by adopting the same technology and policies it recommends to U.S. businesses, The Wall Street Journal's Environmental Capital blog reported on June 8. But as anyone who's tried to diet, quit smoking, or exercise more knows, there's a big difference between knowing what you should do and doing it. So, for the Energy Dept., we offer a few tips for it to lead the way for companies and other government agencies that are ready to take the next steps and break free of their energy addiction.

Tell Your Friends

When it's time to quit smoking, experts say to pick a date and tell your friends. When it's time to cut back energy use, the same rule applies. Pick a target and tell your friends—or, in this case, the electorate. We might not be hanging out in offices and server rooms with Energy Dept. employees the way friends are at a bar, but voters—who are concerned about keeping tabs on how stimulus funds and bailout monies are being spent—can provide that added boost of accountability.

The agency could also use this as an opportunity to practice the open government we've been hearing so much about. Currently the site includes just two "energy and utilities" records; adding more detailed information about governmental energy use could go a long way toward setting examples for the many companies and industries struggling with just this kind of assessment.

Make Positive Substitutions

Whether it's dieting or quitting smoking, changing behavior requires making better substitutions—carrot sticks for a midafternoon snack, licorice or gum in place of a cigarette. That's what the auditors recommended the Energy Dept. do when it comes to making IT purchasing decisions.

According to the memo, the Energy Dept. purchased 2,063 desktops in 2008 for $1.2 million more than it would have cost to supply staff with thin clients, which off-load computing power from individual machines to a centralized server. While thin clients aren't ideal for highly secure environments, a federal agency's adoption of the technology could help further its appeal and provide publicly available information about the challenges and benefits of such a switch.

While the benefits are more well-known—the above-mentioned hardware's cost savings, in addition to energy and e-waste disposal savings (77 lb. annually at the Energy Dept.'s seven audited sites)—sharing challenges may be the best way to lead by example. In the department's publicly available response to the auditors' recommendations, for example, managers note that thin clients aren't ideal for all users—one example cited is that of video streams and other graphics-intensive applications. Continuing to describe the challenges of deploying thin-client computing could help evolve the technology, and help private businesses make better decisions about when and how to make the switch themselves.

Get Help

Just because you're the Energy Dept. doesn't mean you don't need help. A variety of enterprise-level tools are aimed at helping companies (and government offices) cut the fat from their energy operations. The auditors found that the department was missing out on annual energy reductions worth $1.6 million from PC power management. And that's just based on the very doable best practices (e.g., putting computers and monitors to sleep and turning them off at night) recommended by both the Energy Dept. and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

A number of startups and established companies are ready and waiting to help. Verdiem, the PC power management startup with ties to Cisco (CSCO), has a new real-time energy feedback dashboard for IT managers. HP (HPQ) offers a widget to help employees remember to turn off their PCs, and it recently expanded its product line of thin clients aimed squarely at government buyers like the Energy Dept.

With a plan in place, the Energy Dept. should be well on its way to breaking its own embarrassing energy addiction.

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