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Tackling energy efficiency in computing

Senior Energy Department official starts a dialogue with tech leaders to learn how his agency can help.

SUNNYVALE, Calif.--The federal agency that employs Andy Karsner has the word "energy" right there in its name.

So it shouldn't be a surprise that the senior U.S. Energy Department official takes an interest in the growing appetite of today's computing equipment for electrical power. The computing industry can be a fractious bunch, but there's broad consensus that energy consumption is a problem and performance per watt needs to be improved.

Karsner went into the belly of the beast earlier this month, meeting with high-level representatives of Cisco Systems, Hewlett-Packard, Silicon Graphics, Sun Microsystems, Advanced Micro Devices, Intel, Microsoft and IBM. Karsner's goal is to learn about the problem and see what his agency can do to help.

Karsner, whose background is in the power industry, sat down with CNET News.com's Stephen Shankland to discuss his field trip.

Q: You had all kinds of Silicon Valley companies here--chip companies, server companies, networking companies, software companies--all gathered here in the same room. What was the objective of the meeting?
Karsner: From my perspective, it was to galvanize this very important industry and their leaders at a very high level to come together and face up to something that is an industry challenge--(not just) in terms of their competitiveness and their growth, but also a national challenge in terms of our security and a global challenge in terms of our environmental well-being. I think they were driven by that level of common purpose.

What we hope to do is create a continuous forum to shape the right kind of public-private partnership.

I am told it's an unprecedented event to get senior leaders of this level from these competitors together. What we hope to do is create a continuous forum to grow a relationship and shape the right kind of public-private partnership, so they can use tools of the federal government that make them stronger in the aggregate than they may be acting individually.

That's interesting--a public-private partnership. What kinds of roles do you envision for the government when addressing this issue?
Karsner: The things I say today will evolve into a greater list. But right off, we talked about standards and best practices being some of the low-hanging fruit.

This would be the government saying how to build stuff so it's efficient?
Karsner: I don't view it so much as government top-down so much as government entering the circle and convening folks who might not otherwise talk to one another--to get them to distill from themselves what are the best practices. There was some argument and exchange about some of those things today, but it was also seen that there was more in common than there was that divided them.

We can employ the analysis and technical assistance in our national laboratories, not just in hardware, but in the efficiency practices themselves. We have decades of experience doing this with (other) industries. But now you are (seeing) the same metrics of per-square-foot energy consumption for data centers that we see for some of America's more conventional industries.

What is your office's role with industry?
Karsner: We have a very broad portfolio at the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. One of the programs we have is the Industrial Technologies Program to understand what the efficiencies of consumption are, given that the (U.S. industrial) sector consumes more power than the second-largest economy on earth, Japan. It's too important for us to ignore.

We do technological R&D for hardware like superboilers, (which) create greater efficiencies for industry (such as) smelters, or lab hoods on the more mundane side. We do energy savings audits. We have a Save Energy Now program that, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, when we had tight energy supplies, took the top 200 industrial sites in America and performed energy audits cost-shared with the federal government. We distributed software, and trained people on software so they could audit themselves, so we could collect data and use that aggregation of knowledge to convene people and say what would be the more intelligent way forward (and determine) the tools to employ.

We haven't had that kind of engagement with the IT industry. They've evolved to the point where (energy) consumption is a major issue to them and a possible constraint.

What the government provides is the capacity to have an overview and a longer view.

Silicon Valley tends to dislike government regulation and oversight and involvement--Sarbanes-Oxley financial regulations being the most recent example of their fractiousness. Do you think there's a role for federal regulation mandating or encouraging energy efficiency for computing equipment?
Karsner: I don't think anything we discussed today would warrant any new level of regulation or regulatory oversight. This is really voluntary engagement.

What the government provides is the capacity to have an overview and a longer view. Markets provide the best delivery systems for transformation. These markets are substantially incentivized to get the efficiency formula right to reduce consumption, to enhance bottom lines.

What we can do, beyond what markets cannot, is take that piece of the puzzle--the Silicon Valley and IT drivers--and have a greater national strategy. That's why it's important to engage this sector: they are so fundamental and important to our national economy.

Did anything you hear here today change your mind or your opinion? What did you learn here today?
Karsner: I don't normally have the chance to sit through a full day of workshops with leaders. I usually show up, I make a keynote speech, and I'm on to the next one. This was an area where it was a straight-up learning curve. I'm not from the IT sector. I'm a power developer by background. So I wanted to learn and intimately understand.

I also wanted to respect the fact that we had invited CTOs-and-above levels of these major corporations and players in the economy. I had my most senior leaders here and stayed all the way through it. I intend to use that to help direct our team, to formulate that agenda, to give this timeline some urgency.

We're not going to abate our interest in engaging Silicon Valley and the IT leadership that has been the tip of the spear of transformation in this economy in something as important as leading green-energy procurement and best practices for efficiency.

Agenda? What's the overall intent here?
Karsner: I think the plan would be to remove any bottlenecks that are occurring, and occurring more frequently, due to energy consumption and energy-draw needs of ever greater computing power and processing.

Ours is to alleviate those bottlenecks, to get ahead of the curve, to avert any form of future crisis (by) employing the tools we have in the federal arsenal. You don't have to go nearly so far as regulation, particularly when you have high-level, voluntary participation of everybody saying: "We understand it's in our self-interest. Show us how we can help make it the national interest."