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Schools save cash as IT goes green

Low-voltage servers are powering universities’ supercomputers. Students can no longer print pages by the ream. Computers are being recycled.

And the glow of screensaver fish tanks is disappearing from many college campuses as new energy-efficient programs put computers on standby, saving superfluous wattage that can cost schools thousands every year.

Green IT could very well help save the planet, but higher education has seen eco-friendliness save hundreds of thousands of dollars, too–and sometimes even millions–all while operating budgets continue to tighten. 

"Green [IT] has officially caught on," said Thomas Furlani, director of the University of Buffalo’s Center for Computational Research, which will install energy-thrifty supercomputer servers this spring and save $150,000 annually. "It just makes too much sense not to do it anymore."

The low-voltage servers, Furlani said, will save enough electricity to power 110 homes for one year.

"That makes a pretty compelling case," he said.

Higher-education officials expect electricity rates to continue their steady rise, and IT chiefs nationwide are prepping to pitch green IT ideas to the administrators who control their campus’s purse strings.

Proving that energy-efficient–though often expensive–IT initiatives will save the campus cash over time is crucial in creating a low-energy IT department on a slim budget, technology officials said.

"If I can show a reasonable [return on investment], I don’t expect it to be difficult to sell during budget talks," said Dan Tonelli, director of IT support services at Babson College in Massachusetts, where campus officials project $30,000 in energy savings thanks to a new program that allows computers to hibernate when they’re not being used.

Tech officials at some schools, such as the College of New Jersey, are evangelizing about the merits of power-saving environmental consciousness. The college’s quarterly "Tech Talk" online newsletter offers students and faculty a laundry list of ways they can save the school money and reduce electricity consumption with everyday computer use.

Among the green tips in last fall’s newsletter: Shutting off computers and surge protectors at the end of the workday, which saves $70 per computer, per year; eMailing scanned copies instead of making paper copies; and printing double-sided pages.

When advice fails, hard-and-fast rules work. College of New Jersey students are limited to 600 printed pages every semester. The campus charges 5 cents for every page printed over the limit.

"We want to encourage people to do things that will make a big difference," said Nadine Stern, the college’s vice president for information technology and enrollment. "I certainly hope we’re making people more conscious."

Proof of a greener campus

If there were any remaining doubts about the ubiquity of green IT initiatives in higher education, recent surveys and studies have put them to rest. Two-thirds of campus officials at 780 colleges and universities last year said they have instituted energy and cost-saving technology policies or are planning to implement green strategies.

The survey–conducted by the Association for Information Communications Technology Professionals in Higher Education (ACUTA)–showed that institutions of varying sizes and budgets are recycling computer and network equipment, shutting down computers that aren’t being used, tapping alternative sources to provide electricity to computer labs, and expanding telecommuting courses and flexible work schedules.

ACUTA’s survey also revealed budget limitations faced by college officials pushing for green IT. Seventy-two percent of the schools that have not yet implemented green policies said stagnant or plummeting budgets have put energy-efficient plans out of reach.

Thirty-two percent of respondents from non-green campuses said expensive energy-thrifty equipment has proven to be a tough sell during annual budget talks. They said proving long-term cost savings to decision makers remains an obstacle.

Green efforts, large and small

Even the seemingly smallest adjustments to computer energy use can reduce pollution and save campuses hundreds of thousands of dollars every year. At the University of Hawaii’s Monoa campus, IT decision makers targeted screen savers to trim computer labs’ pricey energy consumption.

The university’s new liquid crystal display (LCD) flat-screen computers switch into a low-power standby mode when no one is using them, meaning screen savers don’t remain on the screen and force the computer’s central processor to run unnecessarily. On a typical 17-inch screen, that means a screen saver requires 94 watts of electricity every hour. On standby mode, the computer uses seven watts–a savings of 87 watts per hour, according to a university analysis.

The standby option would save the University of Hawaii $17.64 per year for every one of the campus’s 9,000 computers–a savings of more than $158,000 annually. Hawaii’s IT department launched a web site recently that gives students and faculty instructions on how to power down their screen savers during off-hours.

The University of Miami’s nearly 60,000 computers switch automatically to standby mode if they are inactive for 30 minutes. If a PC hasn’t been used for three hours, it shuts off entirely, saving power.

"It gets everybody into the habit of paying attention to what is environmentally friendly," said Mimi Pambrun, Miami’s director of marketing. "And we encourage other schools to [implement green IT policies]. We want them to be part of the green team."

University officials are finding ways to save costly energy even with the IT department’s largest purchases. One of higher education’s most energy-intensive purchases–the power-hungry supercomputer–has been roped into the greening of campus computers. This spring, the University of Buffalo’s supercomputer will be upgraded with the installation of energy-efficient servers that will "dramatically reduce … power and cooling requirements," said Furlani of Buffalo’s IT department.

And the campus won’t sacrifice computer performance for energy savings. Furlani said replacing one-fourth of the supercomputer’s servers will boost capacity and performance by about 50 percent.

Buffalo was able to green its supercomputer servers with a $300,000 contract from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority and a $150,000 contribution from the school. With the servers’ energy savings, the university is expected to recoup its investment by early 2010, officials said.

Higher-education officials said several technology giants have marketed low-energy servers in recent years, including Hewlett-Packard, Dell, and IBM. Officials credited Intel with manufacturing microchips that serve as the centerpiece for eco-friendly servers.

The University of Maine unveiled the state’s first green supercomputer last October, drawing stark comparisons to mega-computers that are known to run up steep electricity bills and drain IT budgets.

The high-speed supercomputer, known as the SiCortex SC072 Personal Development System, has 72 processors that typically require 100 watts of power each. Maine’s SiCortex machine uses about 300 watts altogether–a savings of 6,900 watts over other supercomputers.

"It’s easy to overlook the fact that for every watt of electricity used to run these large computers, up to another watt is required to cool the system," said George Markowsky, acting chairman of the University of Maine’s Computer Science Department.

The school’s IT department wowed students and faculty last fall when a group of university bicyclists produced enough electricity to run the SiCortex computer using stationary bikes. 

"The fact that a team of bicyclists could power the system underscores the energy efficiency of the UMaine supercomputer," said James Bailey, marketing director of SiCortex.

Keeping hot servers cool

Network servers run hot–so hot, in fact, that campus IT departments set aside tens of thousands to pay for air conditioning that blasts the equipment with frigid air and keeps them running. The problem is pronounced on campuses with warm climates, where 100-degree days mean air conditioning runs full-blast all day.

Wendell C. Brase, vice chancellor for administrative and business services at the University of California Irvine, hosted a seminar on green alternatives to keeping servers cool without running a utility deficit.

Hot summer days in California, Brase said, can put the university’s air-conditioning costs through the roof. A solution, he said, is thermal storage. At night, when temperatures drop, air conditioning units create and store cool air using far less energy than they would during the daytime. When students and professors come to class the next day, the air conditioners turn on and pump the air stored the night before.

Brase said thermal storage would be key in cutting energy costs at the country’s hottest campuses in California, Arizona, and other states with mild to warm winters. But he said every large research university should consider converting to thermal storage.

Cooling computer servers also is an enormous cost for every large university, Brase said. Researchers and IT managers are discovering new ways to cool down the servers without setting the air conditioning to its lowest temperatures. Brase said servers work efficiently at 90 degrees, several degrees higher than most IT officials had believed.

Building a roof over the server area in a lab building, Brase said, would block off the rest of the room and limit the square footage that needed to be cooled. Universities also can pump outside air into the server room, avoiding air conditioning altogether.

IT recycling … and the battle against utilities

Some of the largest U.S. campuses have incorporated IT equipment in university-wide recycling efforts.

The University of Miami is one of many private campuses that are joining publicly funded colleges in offsetting tough economic times with energy-saving IT programs.

Last year, the University of Miami’s Green U initiative recycled 1,155 computer parts such as keyboards and computer screens. Miami also recycled 3,941 pounds of batteries and more than 17,000 pounds of lamps. In the first eight months of 2008, the university recycled more than 2,500 pieces of IT equipment. 

"We’re budget conscious right now," Pambrun said. "Obviously, we want to encourage it even more because of the state of our economy."

Colleges’ smorgasbord of green efforts isn’t driven exclusively by a desire for environmental stewardship. After incremental increases in campus utility costs at the beginning of this decade, universities have seen electricity bills skyrocket in recent years. Some campuses–including Western Kentucky University, the University of Kentucky, and several Pennsylvania public colleges–are facing utility deficits upwards of $500,000, according to university web sites and local media reports.

When winter break started at Western Kentucky on Dec. 13, university officials called for a complete shutdown of campus electricity and waterlines–a move that could save the university $80,000. Shutting down circuit breakers in the week between the spring and summer semesters could trim utility costs by $60,000, according to reports.

Penn State University announced in November that its utility bills jumped last year, rising by 15 percent, or about $3 million. The Housing and Food Services Department anticipates another $900,000 increase if Pennsylvania’s electricity rate caps are not reinstated.

While campus budget offices grapple with escalating electricity costs, IT officials say 2009 will be prime time for ramping up greener practices.

"Green initiatives are sometimes expensive, but I can’t think of any instances where I would say too expensive," said Tonelli of Babson College. "Initiatives usually reduce costs, so regardless of the initial outlay, there is most often a very good return on investment."


ACUTA survey on green IT

University of Maine

University of Buffalo

Babson College

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