Most organisations have taken a laid-back attitude towards energy consumption since IT has been widely adopted. Printers and photocopiers stay switched on, PCs are left running all night, and server rooms are kept at near-Arctic temperatures by air conditioning.

That’s all beginning to change. Fuel costs are spiralling, and a recent spike caused by instability in oil-exporting companies such as Nigeria briefly saw oil prices reach $100 a barrel.

The underlying trend is upwards: rapidly growing economies such as China and India are driving up demand for oil, and the Centre for Global Energy Studies predicts that worldwide demand will continue to grow at a rate of 0.9 per cent a year.

On top of that, there is increasing pressure on businesses from the European Union (EU) and government to reduce carbon emissions. The latest draft legislation from the European Commission states that the industries creating the most pollution must cut their emissions by 21 per cent by 2020. Most of this reduction will come through a carbon-trading scheme in which polluters such as power generators and oil refineries buy and sell emission permits.

“All emission trading rights will be auctioned to utility companies, starting in 2013,” says Colette Lewiner, head of energy, utilities and chemicals at Capgemini. “This means a cost to the utilities of between 20 and 30 billion euros a year.” The end result is that customers may end up paying more.

Faced with the reality that costs will only get higher, and pressure from government to reduce carbon emissions isn’t going to go away, businesses are beginning to take a long, hard look at the amount of energy they are consuming.

In the new, energy-efficient business environment, the CIO will have a crucial part to play. IT is a major cause of energy consumption in the organisation; by reducing the amount of energy used by PCs and servers, the CIO can slash the electricity bill. What’s more, IT can be used to create efficiencies elsewhere in the organisation.

That’s the good news. Reducing energy spend in a large organisation is a daunting task, however. So what’s the best way of approaching it?

BT is a company’s taking saving energy seriously at the highest level. It has a board-level committee that oversees its sustainability strategy. Below that is a climate change taskforce, chaired by a senior manager, and including lines of business representatives from across the company. Its approach is methodical: BT spends a lot of time setting targets, identifying the activities it can undertake to achieve those targets, and then analysing the savings it makes each time it meets a target.

The energy-saving measures implemented by the company have ranged from simple ones (such as switching from CRT screens to LCD screens on PCs) to the complex and time-consuming. One of the simplest cost-savings came through announcing an “amnesty” on unused applications. The company asked people to identify systems they had built that were no longer in use. People who identified redundant systems were rewarded financially at a total cost to the company of £67,000. But by reusing redundant equipment and switching off systems that were not in use, BT saved £1m.

BT: the undisputed leader in the field of energy saving

The company has had an environmental policy since the early 1990s, and published its first target on carbon dioxide reduction in 1992. Since 1996, it has reduced its carbon footprint from 1.6 million tonnes of carbon dioxide to just over 600,000 tonnes. Although much of its CO2 reduction has come from using green electricity suppliers, the company has also substantially reduced the amount of energy it uses.

Breath of fresh air
Other energy-saving projects have required a good deal of planning and research. This includes the changes the company has made to the method of cooling its network halls, says Chris Tuppen, director of sustainability at BT: “We use fresh air cooling; we don’t have any humidity control, and we have refrigerated air conditioning that only switches in on the very hottest of days. The net result is that 80 per cent of the electricity that goes into the equipment area is used to run the kit, while the remaining 20 per cent takes the excess heat away.” The comparable split in the datacentre, he adds, is 50-50.

A good deal of effort has been put into making this work: fans blow fresh air from outside the building over the equipment racks, and the company has worked hard to model the air flows to avoid hot spots.

As well as reducing operational costs through reduced electricity consumption, the company has reduced capital expenditure, because the investment required to build the equipment halls for the network is now much lower than for datacentres.

The next logical step is to apply the same approach to the design of the datacentres. Standards for the design of datacentre halls, says Tuppen, were developed back in the days of mainframe computers, which had very specific requirements in terms of temperature and humidity because a warm environment would distort the magnetic tape, creating data errors.

These standards are still rigidly adhered to, even though they no longer apply, argues Tuppen. Because it costs a lot of money to build data halls that meet these rigid standards, companies have compounded the problem by cramming as much equipment as they can into a short space and generating more heat. This view is supported by a report from the Digital Realty Trust (a datacentre provider) called The Common Sense Guide, Planning and Building a Green Datacenter, which argues that by keeping the operating temperature of the datacentre at 72°F (22°C) rather than the more usual 68°F (20° C), organisations can make substantial savings on their energy spend.

PC protocol
If datacentres are one of IT’s biggest consumers of energy, the other is the organisation’s PCs. One of the easiest ways to save energy is to make sure PCs are switched off when not in use; according to Lewiner, UK companies could save £300,000 each by switching off desktop computers every night. While some organisations introduce policies asking staff to turn off their computers, this tends to be only moderately successful: Peterborough City Council found that, despite a switch-off policy, nearly a third of staff were still leaving their computers switched on in standby mode. By implementing NightWatchman, a power management system from 1E that shuts down all PCs centrally, the council has cut its electricity bill by £50,000 a year.

But the desktop PC is intrinsically a big consumer of energy; despite the longevity of the model, is it time to give the PC the boot? Canadian vendor Userful, for example, has addressed this problem by developing technology, mainly used in schools and libraries, that allows 10 users to share the resources of one PC.

Some organisations have gone one step further and got rid of their PCs altogether. This was the option chosen by Reed Managed Services as part of a package to reduce energy costs in its organisation. Two years ago, it moved 3,000 users (about 95 per cent of its office staff) from desktop PCs to a Citrix-based thin-client system from Wyse Technology.

The thin clients use far less energy than desktop PCs (they draw 17W, rather than 150W) and can be turned off without losing data. While many organisations choose to leave desktop PCs on overnight to carry out anti-virus or Microsoft updates, says Sean Whetstone, head of IT services at Reed, the thin clients can be turned off every night, and are often turned off during the day when people are at meetings. Because of the small number of components, they are also more resilient than the desktops. Whetstone estimates the breakdown rate at one per cent a year rather than 10 per cent a year, resulting in a drop in maintenance costs from £400,000 to £60,000.

At the same time, Reed decided to address the wastage in its datacentre. Like many CIOs, Whetstone saw the attraction of virtualisation. As Lewiner points out: “Servers are used at 20 per cent during working hours, and 70 per cent of the cost of managing them revolves around power and cooling. If you increase usage to 50 per cent, you make significant savings.”

Whetstone tackled this wastage head-on. Recognising that the company’s servers were not being used to maximum efficiency, he began by replacing its existing servers running HP-UX with more efficient 64-bit blade servers running Red Hat Unix; he decommissioned servers in remote offices, and implemented server virtualisation technology in the datacentre. This use of virtualisation has been particularly beneficial as Reed has expanded into other international markets: the UK servers can be used in these regions at times when they would otherwise be standing idle.

The implementation of the thin client technologies combined with the efficiency improvements to the datacentre resulted in a 20 per cent reduction in Reed’s IT budget as well as a 26 per cent saving (£100,000) in the electricity bill across the organisation. Hourly power consumption dropped by 5.4 million KW hours of power.

But IT isn’t just a consumer of electricity: by using technology strategically, through the deployment of field force applications or remote working technologies, the CIO can deliver substantial savings.

Collaboration technologies such as instant messaging, shared workspaces and web-conferencing, combined with the prevalence of broadband and the availability of secure virtual private networks (VPN) mean that it is relatively easy to set up home offices for employees.

The other area where the CIO can help is in the reduction of money spent on fuel. Video conferencing remains relatively unpopular, but other collaborative technologies such as blogs and wikis, used intelligently, could minimise the need for face-to-face meetings. A recent report from consultant Arthur Little, called Sustainability within and beyond the ICT industry, argues that: “collaboration and conferencing services...allow faster decisions, increase productivity, drastically reduce travel expenses and avoid CO2 emissions.”

Cutting energy spend is not a task that can be accomplished overnight. Implementing virtualisation technology in the datacentre or replacing desktop PCs with thin clients are projects that will take time and effort. Encouraging people to work at home or to use video conferences instead of travelling to meetings requires a big cultural shift in the organisation. But organisations that start now will, in the long-term, achieve the double whammy of reduced energy expenditure and lower carbon emissions.

In its newer network halls, BT has also saved energy by changing the way that current is converted. In data halls, alternating current (AC) is fed into the racks, and each piece of equipment has its own power supply that makes the conversion to direct current (DC). This is inefficient: and so in BT’s network halls, the conversion from AC to DC is carried out outside the equipment hall and DC is fed into the racks. The plan is to do the same in its new data halls; it is almost impossible to make this kind of change in existing data halls, says Tuppen.

For companies that have fleets of delivery vehicles, the use of route-planning software can cut the amount of time their vehicles spend on the road. Paper manufacturer St Regis, for example, has reduced fuel spend by using RoutePro software to ensure that its lorries can make their deliveries in the most efficient manner possible. Other technologies, such as GPS (to identify where vehicles are) and RFID tags (to keep track of products and people) can also help to minimise inefficiencies. Although fleet management technologies are still not widely used, this will change, says Green: “When we start getting proper carbon trading in place, that will push up the price, and there will be more and more incentives to use your fleet as efficiently as possible.”

As Jeremy Green, principal analyst at Ovum and a consultant for ICTandclimatechange.com, points out, once people are working at home even some of the time, the organisation will be able to provide less office space. Ten per cent of BT’s workforce works from home, enabling the company to save £77 million a year in accommodation costs. Other organisations are slowly following suit; the AA is one of a handful of businesses that allows call centre operators to work from home.