IT workers wearing smiley face masks

Green IT gets personal

Can rewarding techies for reducing the energy consumption of their employers' ICT estate yield environmental dividends? E&T investigates.

Much effort has gone into making PCs more energy-efficient, but it is not just the power used by office desktop computers that places massive burdens on electricity supplies. The networks, servers and storage resources they connect to - plus the printers, scanners, photocopiers, phone handsets, and other electronic office equipment that supplement them - all contribute toward increasing IT's carbon footprint. Add to this the fans and air-conditioning systems that prevent all that hardware from overheating, and you don't need to be an electrical engineer to recognise that it results in a very high therm count.According to the International Energy Agency (IEA) Information communications technology equipment accounted for 4 per cent of total global electricity consumption in 2008, a figure expected to rise to 40 per cent by 2030. With electricity demands set to double worldwide by the same year, IT will become an even bigger factor in meeting environmental control targets.

Many organisations still haven't even begun to think about the task of reducing their enterprise ICT carbon footprint, let alone addressing more advanced measures like helping their homeworkers to be more energy efficient. However, widespread implementation of consolidation and cost-saving measures in data centres, server rooms, and other IT-enabled facilities has delivered some of the same environmental benefits.

Environmental legislation that threatens financial penalties for non compliance - the UK Carbon Reduction Commitment Energy Efficiency Scheme (CRC-EES), for example - may force large organisations that consume more than 6,000MWh or electricity per year into more demonstrable action.

Having identified the need and made the decision to take action, how does the board then allocate responsibility for implementing environmentally-friendly policies to individuals or departments? Further, what incentives can IT managers be offered to work to minimise carbon output on their employers' behalf?

It is an issue that is gaining currency across the organisational hierarchy, bouncing from board level, to human resources, and IT directorate level.

Cash bonuses

One scheme is to pay a cash bonus as a percentage of the money saved from the successful introduction of agreed green ICT measures into an organisation; such a measure would, industry experts say, provide a powerful inducement.

"This isn't something we have specifically asked [our membership] and anecdotally, I haven't come across it either," says National Computing Centre spokesperson Michael Dean. "However, with impending legislation, I'm sure the incentive will be there in large organisations whose tax burden could be adversely affected by excessive emissions."

"It is a very strong incentive," agrees Professor Jim Norton, independent director, policy adviser, and chair of the IET IT Policy Panel, "but any move must make sure that measurable performance metrics are placed against it."This touches on a long-debated issue in enterprise IT carbon management programmes: access to the company power bill. In many organisations IT directors do not have sight of this baseline metric.

Warren Wilson, senior analyst for IT and sustainability at research company Ovum, reckons that economic pressures may be one reason why some organisations have preferred to fight shy of attaching performance premiums to 'greenness' for the time being, while any green ICT incentive scheme should be implemented as part of a comprehensive company-wide programme.

"If there are greater energy savings to be had from ICT, it would make sense not only to include the IT manager and director but others in the company as well," Wilson says. A lot of companies have, "been scrambling just to keep their heads above water", and cannot afford to put those measures into place at this time.

Taking the credit

Deciding to whom the cash incentive is paid can also be a headache, especially given the increasing crossover and politicisation between the IT and facilities management departments (see 'The Urge to Converge', E&T Vol 5, #14, or follow weblinks at end) that often denies one or the other access to information vital for making an accurate assessment of carbon reduction and so of cost savings that may achieved.

"Most companies do not have comprehensive incentive programmes in place, often because of the information disconnect between the person responsible for certain areas of power consumption and the person who pays the bill," maintains Ovum's Warren Wilson. "Not only is the person responsible for saving energy not incentivised for performance measures, they often do not even know how much energy they are using in the first place."

Cost savings rule

Cash bonuses make perfect sense from the staff perspective, but they are they as appealing for chief executives? After all, the bosses' green impetus is in cost consolidation strategies rather than any desire to save the environment. In some respects the lead shown by IT in matters of green practice and carbon management has been a nuisance to senior executives, who have been displaying increasing ambivalence over how much board-level decision-making power the IT function should be wield.

"It is often the chief financial officer (CFO) who drives [green] initiatives across a company, but usually on the basis of money-saving," says Ovum's Warren Wilson. He claims that it is pretty well agreed now, given the current economic climate, that green IT initiatives are "not measured out of altruism, but out of their ability to save companies' money."

While it is probably true that such initiatives in any commercial organisation are not implemented entirely out of environmental concerns - even in one that stands or falls on its corporate social responsibility record - does it actually matter what the motivation for curbing the carbon? And if IT bonuses accrue for cost saving rather that for 'green brownie points', who cares?

"It is important to bear in mind that green IT is also seen as a cost-cutting exercise," insists Murray Sherwood, managing director of specialist Green IT company Externus; the firm can take credit as one reason why alternative methods of inducement, like key performance indicators (KPIs) related to carbon footprint reduction and environmental measures, are finding their way into job descriptions and annual staff appraisals.

"Though it is not widespread yet, we have seen KPIs for the IT director that come up with an environmental impact score, carbon measures tied with potential cost-saving targets which are part of his or her performance assessment," Sherwood reports, "though how [those individuals] distribute those incentives to other members of the IT department is not always clear."

Public sector savings

Despite job cuts anticipated over the next 12 months, the public sector will remain by far the biggest single employer in the UK, and is well placed to lead in the establishment of green ICT incentives - as it has. In 2008 the Cabinet Office introduced the 'Greening Government ICT' strategy, with the aim of making all government ICT systems carbon neutral by 2020. It advises individual government departments to task their finance directors to assure the environmental consequences of procurements are fully evaluated, for example.

It also advises that CIOs sign their names to sustainable ICT charters with industry providers and report back their carbon footprint reduction achievements to a central body, the Green ICT Delivery group. The Cabinet Office has also introduced a Green ICT scorecard that benchmarks organisational behaviour, and a CIO Green ICT map that shows where greening ICT can help meet Sustainable Operations on the Government Estate (SOGE) targets.

One year after its introduction, Greening Government ICT has already delivered £6.8m of cost savings, plus a carbon footprint reduction of 12,000 tonnes, claims the Cabinet Office, proving that this type of incentive can be made to work.

Despite the range of environmentally sound technology choices available to IT departments, Wilson also warns companies not to get too hung up on reducing ICT power consumption in isolation: there are a lot of other areas of commercial operations where significant environmental savings can be made.

"Overall, ICT accounts for around two to three per cent of global power consumption and carbon emissions, so with the best luck in the world, even if you could reduce that to zero, you would still have the other 97 per cent to deal with," he concludes.

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