School leaders get advice on ‘green’ computing

With energy costs soaring to record levels, taking steps to reduce energy consumption isn’t just good for the environment–it’s also essential for the fiscal health of schools. At a recent webinar on “green” computing, panelists discussed several ways school leaders can reduce the power consumption of their technology systems…and ways they can use technology to cut other energy expenditures, too.

“What’s going to happen to this world if we don’t change our behavior?” asked consultant Karen Greenwood Henke, who moderated the online discussion for the Consortium for School Networking, its host.

Switching a single light bulb to an energy-efficient bulb can save about 300 pounds of carbon dioxide a year, Henke said–and if every family in the United States made the switch, carbon dioxide output would be reduced by more than 90 billion pounds.

“Even small changes can have a big impact,” she said.

Information technology (IT) energy usage “will double in the next four years, and there are some easy things in the world of IT that we can do to attack this problem,” according to Andrew Verdesca, marketing manager of energy-efficient technologies and services for IBM.

Verdesca used his company as an example of how a wide range of organizations can foster eco-responsibility. IBM offers a program, called Big Green Innovations, that helps school systems, corporations, and other enterprises design more energy-efficient data centers and reduce energy consumption. IBM also operates asset-recovery programs for buying back and disposing of used IT systems.

“eWaste can’t be ignored–1 billion computers will become potential scrap by 2010, and only 45 percent of U.S. companies have eco-friendly disposal plans,” Verdesca said.

He said diagnosing the power consumption of your current IT systems is the first step in figuring out which systems are taking up the most energy–and determining which systems can be placed in idle mode when they are not being used.

“Just understanding how much power is being consumed is a big part of [solving the problem],” he said.

It’s estimated that, in an entire data center, the actual IT systems account for 45 percent of energy use, and power and cooling apparatuses account for 55 percent, Verdesca said. It’s also estimated that only 20 percent of an IT system is being used, and the remaining 80 percent is not being used.

“Seizing control of the wasted spaces in systems” is a step in the right direction, he said.

There are things you can start doing right way to “go green” in your schools, said Darrell Walery, director of technology for the Consolidated High School District 230 in Illinois. He added: “A lot of the things, you’re already doing.”

Walery’s district makes use of conference calling and online meetings to save on gas consumption and paper costs, and the district is upgrading certain online communications channels to save on these expenses as well.

The district is using an intranet and Microsoft SharePoint technology for posting information, which helps reduce the amount of storage space employees need on their individual machines and cuts down on the number of eMail messages that are printed out, Walery said.

“We’re educating our users to…think about doing things a little bit differently,” he added.

Using server virtualization technology, the district has consolidated 11 servers onto two hard boxes, and all its computers are shut down at a specified time. In addition, all monitors go into “sleep” mode after 20 minutes to reduce power consumption.

“Many [solutions] have very little or no cost and just require behavior changes, so your district can start doing things in a slightly different way,” he said.

Converging various IT systems on a single district network can save on energy costs, said Jim Schul, chief information officer for the Harris County, Texas, Department of Education. And internet-based instruction is another “green” option for schools.

“Virtual delivery is now taking off, and not just in the professional development area, but also in classrooms, which we’re very excited about,” Schul said.

Opting for virtual instruction could prompt districts to reconsider their school construction and building-size needs, he said.

For example, a fully equipped school that houses 2,000 to 3,000 students can cost upwards of $100 million. “If we start to virtualize a lot of our instruction, we might not need a $100 million high school–maybe we need a $75 million high school, because all of our students might not be present at the same time, meaning [we could reduce our] heating and cooling, maintenance, bus, and other energy costs,” he said.

Rural schools in particular are affected by today’s high gas prices and energy costs, because some students might ride an hour or longer on their way to school. Provided that students have access to technology at home, virtual schooling can help cut gas and electricity consumption, Schul said.

Texas recently passed a law requiring school districts to reduce their energy bills by 5 percent, and the panelists urged school leaders to begin implementing energy-saving plans so they can lead by example and be prepared if, or when, other states begin imposing similar energy-usage mandates.

“Going green is a long-term investment. …Who knows how high energy costs will be 20 years from now?” Schul said. “Think out of the box for eco-friendliness.”

“It’s just a matter of education and letting people know there’s a different way to do things,” Walery said.

“Education is critical in this whole area,” Verdesca agreed.


Consortium for School Networking

Laura Ascione
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