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Suppose we frame a question selfishly. If you started a sentence with “I would like more…” How would you finish it? Fast reactions for the business minded might be: “insight” “time” or “revenue.” At a personal level, the words might be “love”, “money”, “laughter”, pie, or “Avengers sequels.” On the flip side, the list may be much longer “I would like less…” “expense”, “complexity”, “posturing”, “pollution”. And if you knew just how to lessen those items, you’d do it. Right?

We celebrated the 45th anniversary of Earth Day in April. Since the first in 1970, 192 countries have joined in. In the interim, we can claim significant strides toward raising our collective consciousness, establishing new norms for clean water, clean air, and fuel efficiency. We’ve expanded our understanding of personal as well as business and policy impacts. Information Technology has more tools and techniques to save energy than ever with virtualization of every sort high on the list. However, there appears to be a large gap between what we could do and what we actually implement.

The idea of Earth Day is credited to Gaylord Nelson, a Democratic U.S. Senator from Wisconsin. He understood the dire and broader environmental implications after a massive oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara. (Yes, we did just have another of those.) He helped to organize environmental consciousness raising rallies that marked the rise of the modern US environmental movement – April 22nd, 1970.

iStock_000021177656_MediumFrom today’s perspective, there’s another important lesson here. Earth Day was a bipartisan initiative. Nelson recruited an environmentally concerned Republican Congressman to co-chair his efforts. Yes, Democrats and Republicans (at least some of them) agreed on an action plan for the environment. They were even proud of working together. Wow.

The impact of that collaboration has continued to grow. This year Earth Day had over a billion people participating from Boston to Bangalore to Barcelona in what is called the largest civic action day on earth. Even if the politicians don’t get it. The people do. But we all have plenty of room for improvement. Including in IT.

In 2008, the industry buzz was all about “green IT”. Every vendor pushed their technology to advance the green cause, primarily focused on energy efficiency. Even IBM’s Big Blue team was seen sporting green jerseys. Then green fatigue moved in, the recession hit and business survival took precedence. Even so, efficiency has continued to improve with innovations from technology vendors, including Actifio and industry organizations like the Green Grid. However, little in the trade press points to the potential benefits, savings or opportunities to improve business efficiencies that impact the bottom line.

Even though underlying IT energy and sustainability concerns that were so strong a few years ago have faded to a murmur, have the issues become less important? Have improvements made in the last few years brought the problem under control? The questions fascinate. Not only are these critical and complex challenges, addressing them has the potential to create value in multiple dimensions beyond the data center.

In his blog “An Economic View of the Environment,” Robert Stavins notes that “Global energy consumption is on a path to grow 30-50 percent over the next 25 years.” Information Technology is currently estimated to consume 10% of all the electricity produced. That’s up from 8% a few years ago. Stavins is a Professor of Business and Government at the Harvard Kennedy School as well as Director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program. He’s also co-author of some recent research, “Assessing the Energy-Efficiency Gap” that examines questions about current attitudes and overall energy efficiency progress. The report’s co-authors are Todd D. Gerarden of Harvard and Richard Newell from Duke.

Stavins describes something called the “energy paradox,” first stated in 1994, that continues to hinder “diffusion of conservation technology.”

“Energy-efficient technologies offer considerable promise for reducing the costs and environmental damages associated with energy use, but these technologies appear not to be used by consumers and businesses to the degree that would apparently be justified, even on the basis of their own … financial net benefits.”

While their new monograph doesn’t directly address IT, the research does impact our understanding of ideas and attitudes toward adoption of options under the umbrella of efficient IT. And it’s still clear that though the push for IT energy efficiency has faded, the rationale for paying attention has not.

Back to being selfish. There are creative and practical measures that can be taken. Most importantly, the fundamental efficiency ideas for business have always been about managing return on investment and cost of ownership. Consider data efficiency per square foot or dollar of cloud investment. Efficiency and sustainability are not altruistic. Businesses strives for efficiency because it makes financial sense. (Facebook saved $1.2 billion on their energy bill with more efficient servers. Data Center Knowledge, January 28, 2014. )

In the US, we are approaching the point that data centers spend more on energy than they spend on IT infrastructure. And moving toward maximum efficiency has cascading benefits. IT improvements such as data virtualization can reduce infrastructure and so consume less energy. That lowers cost and requires less space, materials, packaging, shipping, manufacturing and raw materials.

Efficient IT operations can reduce environmental impact and decrease IT expenses and drive higher business productivity. This is sustainability, not only in the environmental sense but also in the IT/business sense.




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