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Washington's role in a green recovery

How the green-tech initiatives outlined in the federal stimulus bill are implemented is as important as their passage. Here are the recommendations of a Dell executive.

Editors' note: This is a guest post. See Paul Bell's bio below.

When President Obama addressed a joint session of Congress in February, he spoke to the need for the United States to become more energy-efficient. To that end, the stimulus bill he recently signed into law provides more than $30 billion for energy efficiency projects, innovative technology loan guarantees, the retrofitting of federal facilities, and the development of the initial framework for a "smart" electrical grid.

These measures put the country on a long-term path toward so-called green-led growth. But how they are implemented is as important as their passage. Moving forward, policymakers must adopt reforms and take advantage of the stimulus funds to make government IT operations more energy-efficient. They also should set policies that encourage and incentivize the private sector to do the same.

To start, they should spotlight the significant stimulus funds aimed at upgrading information technology in federal facilities. Newer, more energy-efficient IT will drive long-term cost savings and environmental sustainability, while boosting government productivity and reducing energy consumption.

The federal government is a major IT user and, as such, a major energy consumer. The most recent Environmental Protection Agency report on federal energy consumption indicates that federal servers and data centers accounted for approximately 6 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity use, for a total electricity cost of about $450 million annually (PDF). And energy use is slated to double by 2011.

The federal government can lead by example by pursuing two interlocking--but equally important--objectives:

First, the Obama administration should challenge federal agencies to freeze IT-related energy consumption at current levels while boosting computing output. This will be faster and potentially more effective than legislation.

And it's not as difficult as it sounds, but depends on successful implementation of three measures: New federal data centers must use the best available energy-efficient IT; existing federal data centers must be converted to "green" data centers within three years; and federal data centers must be connected to intelligent utility networks or smart grids, where possible. This will reduce energy consumption and drive significant cost savings for consumers, small businesses, large enterprises, and public-sector organizations, while enhancing U.S. competitiveness.

At Dell, we've learned that going green doesn't have to involve building costly new data centers. By applying a green approach to our own data centers, we are on track to save $52 million in related costs by the end of this year, and we've avoided the need to build a new data center altogether. We're able to compute more while consuming less.

The federal government must modernize data centers to improve energy efficiency. Most government--and private-sector--data centers have significant unused capacity due to servers consuming power but not always doing a lot of work. That can change by embracing technologies, such as virtualization, that optimize server productivity.

Virtualization is a technology that allows one server to do the work of many. Using software to create multiple virtual machines inside each physical system, virtualization reduces the number of servers required to run a data center. Combined with other technologies, a data center can do as much as three times more work using the same power and space. This unlocks unused capacity, increases computing power, and avoids the expense associated with overprovisioning and buying additional servers.

Second, government should establish policies that encourage greater IT energy efficiency in the private sector. The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy found that for every extra kilowatt-hour of electricity consumed by information and communications technologies, the U.S. economy increases its overall energy savings by a factor of 10. In essence, efficient IT saves more energy than it uses.

Congress, regulators, and the Obama administration should start with a comprehensive assessment of government servers by class and power use. They also should develop a national strategy for deploying IT that drives energy efficiency. A senior White House representative, perhaps federal CIO Vivek Kundra, should coordinate federal efforts on energy-efficient IT, working with Congress to advance this agenda.

Policymakers also should develop a framework to support private-sector energy efficiency, including:

  • Tax credits to invest in projects that reduce energy demand.
  • Immediate expensing, or accelerated depreciation, for retrofitting or replacing IT that improves energy efficiency by at least 25 percent. Similar benefits should be considered for investment in broadband or related IT that supports flexible work or virtual-meeting programs.
  • Energy efficiency investments for small-business administration loan programs.

In an era of tight budgets, Washington can invest in greater energy efficiency--an investment that will show a strong, timely return. While this is an investment for the long-term, it's imperative that desired efficiencies can be realized immediately.

Technology is the great catalyst for human progress, and now there is a valuable opportunity for government to help the sector realize vast new efficiencies, reduce costs, and simplify IT management.