Nuclear energy shut down CIO

The question of the UK's energy security has been a grumbling issue lurking just below the surface for a while. With the first generation of nuclear power stations reaching the end of their life, and the decommissioning of many dirty coal fired power stations, much of our generation capacity has turned to gas instead.

Recent news from EDF suggests that four of the UK's nuclear reactors in two power stations may be out of action until the end of the year. And as we know some gas supplies may not be secure in the longer term – resources could run out, or the countries rich in resource could tighten the thumbscrews and restrict distribution.

In September's CIO, David Cooper, CIO of British Gas, warned of rising UK electricity demand: “Grid investment is always a very large undertaking. The grid is carrying more capacity than ever as the number of households is going up plus we all have more devices despite efficiency savings.”

The perception of pressure on supply ties neatly into the desire in some quarters for IT to clean up and green up its act. A report published in April from Greenpeace, called 'Clicking Clean', asserts that the electricity consumed cloud vendors and online business would put the industry amongst the top six countries of major energy users. A separate comparison suggests that online energy demand is similar to that of the aviation industry – hardly a reassuring benchmark for a sunrise industry.

It all provides a timely reminder to CIOs to keep their eye on both energy security and the consumption their operations incur directly and indirectly. But is the double pressure having any effect on the way CIOs think about their energy usage?

On the evidence so far, not enough. Part of the problem may be the time-scale involved. CIO talked to several senior CIOs including some working in the energy industry itself. And whilst there was widespread agreement that energy levels had already and should continue to be reduced, the evidence of an active drive to push this agenda unilaterally and harder is far less apparent.

This is because there simply is no perceived energy issue, in spite of EDF's recent power station closures. Client devices have been on a long march towards lower power consumption, independent emergency supply can be provided to mission critical systems in most organisations, and power consumption is usually one consideration in the selection of third party suppliers.  In fact some CIOs can cite blade power consumption figures and their reduction in energy usage over time, suggesting they have a good feel for what's going on.

It all sounds promising and explains why CIOs might be feeling chilled on the subject. But there is massive and continued growth in IT services. A small downward trend in energy usage by an individual blade server may not have much bearing on huge growth brought about by population and growth and internet penetration.

In particular, what about that fast-growing part of the IT function taking place somewhere else, in the cloud? How is that regulated and just how energy efficient is it?  How hard are cloud providers seeking to reduce its dependence of non-renewable source of energy?

There's some good news here.  The Greenpeace 'Click Cleaner' reports that cloud services from Apple, Box, Facebook, Google, Rackspace, and Salesforce have all committed to a goal of  powering their data centres with 100% renewable energy.  But the same report has harsher words for Amazon Web Services (AWS), “...which provides the infrastructure for a significant part of the internet, remains among the dirtiest and least transparent companies in the sector, far behind its major competitors, with zero reporting of its energy or environmental footprint to any source or stakeholder.” it says:  “Twitter lags in many of the same areas.”  On its site Amazon simply points out its compliance with green energy requirements in locations where it is required to do so.

Of course Greenpeace has its own agenda, but it's hard to avoid the conclusion that just pushing the responsibility for using less energy and more renewable out to third party suppliers is a little too much like getting your products made in another country and letting them take care of employment conditions and worker welfare. As we've seen such an approach generally come back and bites businesses where it hurts at some point.

Maybe now is the time for UK CIOs to get proactive? Not just by complying with local statute, relying on third parties to deal with the complexities and banking on the onward march of technology to neatly cover the tracks, but by defining their own stretch targets for renewable energy use.

The final irony is that the responsibility for some larger organisation's entire energy management may well start to fall to the IT function because they have the best analysis tools to monitor and manage overall energy consumption. The discipline of an aggressive approach to energy reduction could prove useful in earning IT the larger corporate role it has always craved.