IT is turning green.

That's right. Many technology leaders shrug their shoulders at the mention of climate change in conversation, or they pass on conference panels that use the "green" terminology. Yet, according to exclusive CIO research, they are beginning to think green.

Stricter government regulations, rising energy costs and the growing awareness that sustainability is a real business concern, are pushing companies to strategise how they will meet future energy demands and calls for carbon emissions data. Green IT is making inroads in the data centre and CIOs are starting to realise that it's only the beginning. Fifty-four per cent of IT leaders responding to a Green IT survey in the US CIO magazine, report that their organisations have environmental sustainability goals for information technology. In other words, they are trying to reduce the negative impact of IT on the planet.

But the report indicates that these leaders are motivated almost equally by social responsibility, as they are by business benefits. While thirty-eight per cent say they're going ‘green’ because it's the right thing to do, thirty-seven per cent say doing the right thing for the planet also helps them reduce operational costs, for example by cutting energy consumption. Only five per cent see sustainable IT as a competitive advantage.

For IT departments a focus on costs, energy costs in particular, is a logical place to start. If you pay attention to the news, you know that addressing climate change relies on rethinking energy use. "As a CIO, electricity accounts for a substantial part of my bill," says Patricia Lawicki, senior vice president and CIO for utility company Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E). Reducing the electricity bill cuts costs and frees up funds for additional IT investments. Few IT organisations have gone much further. Though there's plenty of media attention to calculating carbon footprints (and a few high profile companies, like Dell and retailer Marks Marks & Spencer have declared their intentions to become carbon neutral), IT leaders as a rule are not grappling with the question of their- or their companies- carbon emissions. Among the 280 IT leaders surveyed, 61 per cent said that they were not measuring their corporate carbon footprints right now, though 16 per cent said that they were preparing to do it. Only 11 per cent of the respondents said that their companies are not just conscious of their carbon output, but that IT is part of the calculation.

This is likely to change. Nations are negotiating a follow-up agreement to the Kyoto Protocol, which establishes limits on global emissions. (The process began last December in Bali).

"Unless the science behind climate change develops a more optimistic view of the problem, or progress in technology development and adoption, along with behavioural changes, unfolds more quickly than expected, enterprises should anticipate that they will be motivated and forced to make significant improvements to energy and material efficiency," warns Gartner analyst, Simon Mingay.

Andrea Moffat, director of corporate programmes with Ceres, a network of investors, environmental advocates and public interest organisations, envisions that once companies begin to grapple with their impact on the climate, the role of IT will move beyond simply greening the data centre. The extent of this however, depends on the company and industry, as some business operations will find the transformation to ‘green’, more of a challenge than others. For example while global financial service company Citi, which includes Citibank, has developed a business intelligence application to manage energy use in its office buildings, greening a supply chain for instance would not be a such a straightforward process.

“Many companies still need to get a good handle on how much energy they use, this is an important step if organisations are to choose environmental projects with the greatest benefit to both the Earth and the bottom line,” says Moffat.

While it is debatable as to whether the decision taken to go ‘green’ was of free will or a requirement, both PG&E and Citi are committed to conducting business in an environmentally friendly way. In the process, these companies are learning how to best use IT to balance the imperatives of running a profitable business and a greener one.

Beyond greener data centres

With limits to how much electric power a given facility can sustain, the explosion in demand for processing power, means that most CIOs are now noticing the need for more energy-efficient servers.

Although 56 per cent of respondents in the CIO survey said that they do not monitor IT-related energy spending, 64 per cent are reducing, or have plans to reduce, the energy consumption of their servers. And almost as many say that they will occasionally purchase IT products that are energy-efficient or manufactured and distributed in a sustainable way. For Lawicki at PG&E, the push to reduce data centre energy consumption is motivated not only by cost- her electricity bill grows with her data centre processing capacity- but also by emissions regulations.

PG&E, the largest utility in California, has a mixed environmental record. A decade ago, when the company accused of contaminating local groundwater by residents of Hinkley, California, its $333 million settlement formed the basis for the movie Erin Brockovich. Today, though the company still has critics, PG&E has worked hard to position itself as a leader in low-emissions power distribution (over 50 per cent of its power comes from non-CO2 emitting sources, including nuclear and hydroelectric). PG&E has also set a goal to make its offices, service centres, and other buildings "climate neutral" by 2009.

The company has also launched several programmes designed to help customers reduce their energy consumption, including a rebate for businesses that install energy efficient equipment in their data centres and a "smart meter" programme to measure patterns of residential power consumption. Prior to a recent server consolidation project Lawicki’s team measured the power consumption for each class server to obtain a benchmark. Data centre power consumption was measured using a robotic dynamic thermal monitoring system that detects hot spots in the data centre at different times of day. "This is how detailed you need to get in order to ensure you're doing it the right way," she says.

Lawicki also sees untapped potential for IT to reduce emissions by revamping the PG&E business operations, but is still waiting for a groundswell of demand. "We're waiting for long lines of business to come running in and say I want to be more ‘green’," she says. PG&E business units can use its IT to optimise anything from haulage routes to the wire purchase for its environmental impact. According to Lawicki, this is not going to be an easy task and lots of work and effort will be needed.

She anticipates that the PG&E supply chain group will ask for IT tools that will help them analyse supply decisions based on the carbon footprint left by the company. This means going to software providers such as TK Software and asking for new features that support the additional data collection and analysis.

Analysts point to supply chain management, enterprise asset management and manufacturing systems controls as the top software categories that must evolve to meet the emerging demand for energy management and carbon emissions data. According to Gartner, eight technologies are going to become critical to companies' sustainability efforts. These include applications for optimising service and repair calls, as well as telecommunication and collaboration technologies that allow employees to work at home or reduce their travel.

Technology tools for cutting carbon

Some companies have developed their own tools to track and manage their carbon output. When Citi Realty Services established goals for reducing its greenhouse gas emissions, it decided to look at how it could manage energy consumption more efficiently in its buildings. The initiative started as a way for the company to go ‘green’ and ended as a way to save money too.

Citi is part of the Climate Leaders Initiative, whose members volunteer to disclose their greenhouse gas emissions. When the initiative began more than six years ago, there was a lack of software that could collect and analyse energy consumption data on a global basis, so Citi built its own business intelligence tool. Today, the company collects energy data from its suppliers (including electric utilities, gas, steam and fuel oil) for more than 16,000 properties it owns or leases worldwide. It also gathers information on water consumption, recycling and waste production. The numbers are crunched to create a report on carbon emissions at Citi using conversion formulas from the World Resources Institute. They are also analysed (according to such metrics as kilowatts per square foot and building occupancy) and used by real estate managers to look for ways to reduce their energy use.

"If we have a region that operates at a very low consumption rate, we'll want to find out what they're doing, how they're doing it and share the information across other regions so we can start to find best practices," says Chris Magliano, senior vice president of the Global Sustainability Group, within Citi Realty Services. For instance, "We're looking at a specific lighting retrofit project that was completed in a building and its impact on the facility's energy consumption."

Other Citi facilities are preparing to pilot alternate energy sources. The data also suggests smaller fixes, “Most of which don't cost anything,” says Magliano. At one point, Citi cut several hundred kilowatts of its electricity use by getting the staff in a Manhattan facility to stop using space heaters under their desks. The office thermostat was set to keep computer equipment on one of its trading floors cool, but the workers' complained that it froze their feet. And so, property managers adjusted the building's climate control systems to ensure that the machines would not overheat, but also that employees could be comfortable- a counterintuitive choice that would not have made sense without the data to support it. "Energy data also enables us to retrace our steps and verify the effect of changes made," says Magliano.

Citi does not report how much money it saves from its energy-efficiency initiatives and Magliano explains that this is because energy expenses are not easily defined as they’re often embedded in building rental charges. While the organisation has promised to cut its greenhouse emissions by 10 per cent between 2005 and 2011, interpreting its progress is not completely straightforward. In the first two years that Citi reported its emissions the company's total energy consumption and its carbon emissions had increased. Energy consumed per building occupant-a way to measure the rate of energy use- declined by less than one per cent, while carbon emissions per occupant remained the same.

Lois Grobert, operations manager, sustainable real estate, Citi Realty Services, says that Citi has made progress, but that different numbers tell different stories. For instance, she explains, energy consumption increased during the year because the company had opened more offices. "We cut this data many different ways to see where progress has been made and where our challenges arise," she says.

How do you know when you're really green?

As the initiatives at both PG&E and Citigroup suggest, it makes a difference when sustainability goals have full corporate backing. Too often, CIOs think that while going ‘green’ they get neither credit for saving money when they cut energy costs, nor points for meeting environmental goals. "It's definitely a big dilemma," says Moffat at Ceres. Almost 80 per cent of survey respondents say they have no metrics to measure progress toward greening IT.

Moffat notes disconnection between IT and facilities managers, travel managers and other business leaders that make it challenging to assess the results of any environment-related technology investment. "You need to gather the folks that are procuring the technology with the folks that are paying for the energy bill."

Serious change also depends on more energy efficient hardware and software, along with metrics to judge whether they are worth the investment. Though major hardware vendors continue to introduce products from servers to power supplies that they say are more efficient, the metrics to measure their impact are immature.

Larry Vertal, senior strategist with chip-maker AMD and director of global consortium The Green Grid, is dedicated to advancing energy efficiency in data centres and business computing ecosystems. Vertal observes that many CIOs are doing "basic housekeeping" and thinks they're hesitancy to pursuing new investments is a means to avoid becoming locked-in to any one vendor's solution.

"The current trend is to put a green label on something," says Lawicki. "But what we are trying to get at is a point where we can actually measure the change and progress made, so that we can pose answers to the questions: What did you really save? And what does it really mean?"