December 13, 2007

Concerning "State computers leading the way in energy efficiency"

The previous post was a specialty story I wrote for my intermediate journalism course.

I had written another story for the class about progress of recommendations for Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s Next Generation Energy Act, and was interested in finding out more about how Gov. Pawlenty was making Minnesota “greener.? As a co-chair of the National Governors Association (NGA), Gov. Pawlenty has also been making strides in making the country greener, as well, and I made this the concentration of my specialty story.

On Nov. 7, as co-chairs of the NGA, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and Gov. Pawlenty announced that the NGA would be partnering with the Climate Savers Computing Initiative. I focused my story on how this partnership would affect Minnesota agencies.

I began my reporting by calling the media contact on the NGA’s press release where I got the basic background on the initiative. I then phoned Gov. Pawlenty’s media contact, multiple times on multiple occasions. The contact was unavailable every time I called, but I continued to leave messages, in hopes of getting return calls. I also began calling various state agencies that I thought may be directly connected to the energy saving plan, including the State Energy Program. I also called the Department of Administration, on somewhat of a whim, hoping they could direct my call to someone who was very familiar with the initiative. While waiting for return phone calls from the various stage agencies, I called back the NGA contact to get some more general information.

It turned out that the communication director at the Department of Administration was the perfect person to call, as that department was in charge of purchasing equipment for the agencies— something directly affected by the initiative. The communication director was so helpful in answering all of my questions. I continued to try and get a hold of someone at Gov. Pawlenty’s office, but was continually told to leave a message.

Finally, based some information I had found through my reporting, I contacted the Office of Enterprise Technology to try and find out some information on the interagency group working on creating a sort of standard for sleep and shutdown modes for agency computers. The media contact forwarded my request directly to the man who was leader of that interagency group while it worked on the climate savers effort. He was another extremely helpful source and clarified a lot of the details as I tried to understand how the initiative would actually affect state agencies. I also talked to the media contact for the Climate Savers Computing Initiative to see what her reaction was to the NGA partnership.

Overall, I was very pleased in the amount of information I could actually find about the initiative—and I am especially appreciative of those I could actually get a hold of as they were very patient in helping me understand what was going on in state agencies as a result of the initiative.

State computers leading the way in energy efficiency

Note: The following article was written for an intermediate reporting journalism course at the University of Minnesota.

State agencies across Minnesota aren’t feeling the heat that they used to—from their computers, at least.

The state government will junk its 32,000 computers within five years, replacing them with high-efficiency equipment that could save about $320,000 in electricity costs.

The new standard for computer efficiency, put forward by the Minnesota Department of Administration, stems from a partnership between the National Governors Association and the Climate Savers Computing Initiative to make state agency and office computers more energy efficient.

Google and Intel created the initiative in 2007 to improve the energy efficiency of computers as a way to reduce electricity consumption and limit greenhouse gas emissions. It estimates that over 50 percent of the electricity powering the average desktop PC is wasted heat that never actually gets to the computer. Computer servers are a bit more efficient, but still waste one-third of the energy they receive.

The initiative currently only applies to state agencies and the governor’s office, said Christopher Cashman, media contact at the National Governors Association. Only two states, Kansas and Minnesota, have committed their states to the program, which will affect their computers in two ways. First, all new computers purchased must meet the Energy Star 4.0 rating, which is given to computers that meet energy-efficiency guidelines set by the U.S. Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency. Second, users need to activate power management settings on their existing computers.

New, energy-efficient computers will make their way into Minnesota state agencies through already-established computer replacement cycles. According to Jim Schwartz, the communications director for the Department of Administration, the cost will not be much more than what the state would already be paying for replacement electronics. At most, he said, the high-efficiency technology could add between $4 and $20 to the cost of the machines. “As the technology becomes more common, that price goes down,? Schwartz said.

Because the Department of Administration purchases equipment for all Minnesota agencies, Gov. Pawlenty assigned it the task of making sure the initiative was put into action. The department, Schwartz said, is environmentally conscious and had established Energy Star 4.0 standards for state monitors even before the initiative was announced.

The state will also try to power down existing computers more frequently. Although most desktops can move into a “sleep? or “hibernate? state when not being used, more than 90 percent of commercial computers don’t use that power management function, according to studies from the EPA.

The initiative didn’t create special power management commitments for the National Governors Association partnership, said Barbara Grimes, spokesperson for Climate Savers. Though the initiative has recommendations for powering down systems, state agencies don’t have a definitive rule for how its computers will use the power management settings.

Currently, each individual agency has its own unique power management policy. “We want to be standard across government,? Schwartz said.

But because the agencies manage their desktop equipment differently, the standard will take some time to develop. Jack Ries, at the Office of Enterprise Technology, led an interagency group that is helping agencies improve their power management functions. He said that the team was wary about creating a specific plan. “[The] bottom line is agencies are doing things differently when it comes to managing their desktop equipment,? Ries said. Though some require turning their computers off at night, letting computer tools manage installation updates, other agencies leave them on specific nights of the weeks to run updates. The team also had to consider that some agencies perform overnight computing jobs and others have remotely connected computers. For now, the team has chosen to give a list of items of consideration to the agencies, rather than a definite standard that Ries said could end up causing more problems.

Upper management in the Office of Enterprise Technology is currently reviewing the list of considerations, which leads agencies through the process of enabling power management functions that will work for their specific agency. Agencies will have to first determine how they will measure results and what energy savings strategies they plan to use. After that, they need to pilot their plan. “Once they think they have a plan,? Ries said, “it’s very important that the plan be tested to ensure that it’s not going to cause problems.? The agency can then activate the plan, making sure that it tells employees how everything will work. Finally, agencies need to think about how they will report their results.

“Because of the wide variation of how the individual agencies were handling power management, we basically asked them to review their power management procedures,? Ries said. “We gave them a whole list of things to consider and to develop a kind of strategy in how they could improve their power management function.?

The interagency team hopes to collect the results of the power management tests from the agencies next summer, which will be used to decide if the plans are similar enough to create best practices or standards.

Though the team didn’t establish a mandatory goal for the agencies, Ries said the members of the interagency group felt it important that employees to turn off their computers when they left for the day or weekend. But they also wanted to leave room for exceptions.

“If there’s any guideline, the main one would be to turn your computer off if you’re not using it or when you go home at night,? Ries said. “You’re probably always going to have exceptions. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do something—that just means you’re addressing the exceptions.?

The new initiative could reduce electric consumption by 20,000 kilowatt-hours, which equals the amount of energy in kilowatts an appliance uses in an hour. It’s also estimated that it will save 6.4 million pounds of CO2 emissions, Schwartz said. That’s the same amount of CO2 that nearly 530 cars will emit this year, based on average vehicle emission estimates from the EPA.

The savings, however, may be hard to calculate. “Computers aren’t on a separate circuit or line item on billing statements,? Schwartz said. Because of this, agencies can only calculate overall energy reduction—not the exact savings from the energy switch. Swartz does say, however, that having the numbers for how many computers and monitors are purchased can help them estimate savings.

So far, Schwartz hasn’t heard any resistance. “All state agencies understand the importance of reducing energy consumption,? he said. And agencies have already seen cost reductions resulting from the Energy Star 4.0 standards for monitors.

Despite only two states pledging to be a part of the initiative, Climate Savers hopes that the state’s involvement will help influence business and consumer actions. “It was wonderful news,? Grimes said. “It’s very important not only for the states because of the number of systems that they purchase themselves, but also, state governments have a lot of influence on the businesses that operate in the state.?

December 9, 2007

Facebook takes back Beacon

A month after implementing a new ad system, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has apologized to users and given them the option to opt out of the system, which is known as Beacon.

Beacon tracks a Facebook user’s actions around the web, broadcasting information such as product purchases or signing up for services to the user’s friends. According to the New York Times, Zuckerberg apologized through a blog post after “weeks of criticism from members, privacy groups and advertisers.?

The beginning of the post follows:

“About a month ago, we released a new feature called Beacon to try to help people share information with their friends about things they do on the web. We've made a lot of mistakes building this feature, but we've made even more with how we've handled them. We simply did a bad job with this release, and I apologize for it. While I am disappointed with our mistakes, we appreciate all the feedback we have received from our users.?

One week after changing Beacon to an opt-in system (instead of an if-you-ignore-this-notice-you’re-part-of-the-program system), Zuckerberg offered an option to completely turn off Beacon.

The number of users that were disappointed with the newest Facebook feature was clear by a petition about Beacon; the Times reported that “more than 50,000 Facebook users signed a petition about Beacon that was initiated by the political group Moveon.org Civic Action.?

The privacy issues do not apply solely to users, either: findings from Stefan Berteau, a senior research engineer at Computer Associates' Threat Research Group showed that Beacon also tracks users in its third-party partner sites, according to the Washington Post. Bertau also discovered that Beacon tracks users even when they’re not logged in to Facebook or have opted out of the feature—that user’s actions can be tied back specifically to him or her.

House approves energy bill

Despite a veto threat from the White House, the House passed an energy bill that increases the fuel-efficiency standards for the automobile standards and the use of renewable energy.

According to the New York Times, “The bill's supporters claim it will reduce the nation's dependence on imported oil, jump-start development of clean energy technologies and drastically reduce the nation's production of greenhouse gases.? When the bill reaches the Senate, however, the bill could be rewritten due to opposition to provisions concerning new taxes on the oil industry and requiring “electric utilities to generate 15 percent of their power from alternative sources." The White House has said it will veto the bill if it includes those provisions.

The House voted 235 to 181, with 14 Republicans for it and seven Democrats against it.

According to the bill, by the year 2020 vehicles must average 35 miles per gallon and “15 percent of the electricity generated by the nation's utilities would have to come from renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power, as well as biomass,? according to the Washington Post.

The New York Times reports that this is “the first significant increase in mileage standards since 1975,? and the Washington Post writes that the new standard for mileage is “a 40 percent increase over the current requirement.?

The bill also gives tax incentives for ethanol motor fuel use. Appliance and light bulb standards would also be affected by the measure; if passed, the bill would phase out Thomas Edison's incandescent light bulb.

December 1, 2007

Plans for a new Nordstrom in Ridgedale Mall

Nordstrom announced Friday that it plans to open a store in Minnetonka’s Ridgedale Center. The store will have two levels and will be sized approximately 172,000 square feet, according to the Pioneer Press. In 1992, Nordstrom put in its first Twin Cities store at the Mall of America, along with its outlet, Nordstrom Rack.

The company has planned to tear down one of the Macy’s stores at Ridgedale for its new store, but Macy’s hadn’t agreed to that. Nordstrom retracted its statement later on Friday, “calling the comment ‘premature,’ and said only that it planned to open a store at Ridgedale -- location to be determined,? according to the Star Tribune.

The new Nordstrom store is expected to boost traffic at Ridgedale, but many department stores usually try to keep Nordstrom out because it’s extra competition. As department stores have consolidated, Nordstrom could now make plans to move in.

Frank Guzzetta, chairman of the Macy’s division that oversees Macy’s Midwest operations said no plans of moving the current Ridgedale Macy’s stores have been approved and that he would rather Nordstrom open its new store in downtown Minneapolis to “strengthen the locale,? according to the Star Tribune.

Nordstrom’s target customers are people whose income is $100,000 or more, as reported by the Pioneer Press.

Analysis: Jobs created through green initiatives

Analysis will be turned in on Monday.

November 28, 2007

Jobs created through green initiatives

The mayors of the Twin Cities say that the increase in attention to go green could create more jobs. A study, endorsed by the mayors of Minneapolis and St. Paul, and released by the Renewable Energy Project on Monday, says that Minnesota can create “more than 18,000 well-paying manufacturing jobs in the wind, solar and other alternative-energy businesses over the next decade,? according to the Star Tribune.

The Renewable Energy Project is working with the Blue Green Alliance to document the jobs that can be created if the energy bill calling for 15 percent of U.S. Electricity to come from alternative sources by 2020 passes. Minnesota has already passed a law calling for 25 percent of its electricity to be generated by alternative sources by 2025.

According to the Star Tribune, both St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman and Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak said they have begun plans to both “expand and add companies in the conservation and alternative-energy industries.

The Blue Green Alliance is a partnership between the Sierra Club and United Steelworkers and focuses on three key issues (global warming and clean energy; fair trade; and reducing toxics) while concentrating efforts in Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Washington and Wisconsin, according tho their website (bluegreenalliance.org).

Minnesota Public Radio has reported that the Mayors' Green Manufacturing Initiative are expected to be released in January, showing the “job potential in renewable energy, transportation, and building products.?

November 18, 2007

Recycling effort halted

Electronic recyclers got more than they could handle during the three-day effort at the Mall of America. People could drop off old TVs and computers to be recycled for free, and, according to the Pioneer Press, over 5,000 cars brought “1 million pounds of old electronics? on the first day.

When the collection ended on Friday, dated electronics had filled 86 trucks, reported the Star Tribune. Twenty cars were already in line to recycle one hour before the collection began on that second-day; that afternoon, other cars would be turned away.

A 2006 law prohibits Minnesotans from throwing the cathode ray tubes from both TVs and computers in with the trash, and earlier this year another law “requires electronics manufacturers to collect and recycle 60 percent by weight of what they sold the previous year,? said Garth Hickle, product stewardship team leader for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

With the new federal communications law of February 2009, there will be no more analog signals for TVs. This means that consumers will have to invest in cable or satellite TV, a digital converter or a brand new TV.

Old TVs can be recycled at collection spots throughout the state, but there can be a charge. Hennepin County has free drop-off centers in Brooklyn Park and Bloomington, while Minneapolis has free curbside pick-ups, according to Hickle.

Metro Transit goes green

Last Thursday, Metro Transit introduced its new line of green buses with a procession down Nicollet Mall. The 17 green-wrapped buses that were shown off are the some of the first of the 150 hybrid-electric buses that Metro Transit will buy over the next four years as part of its “Go Green? campaign. According to the Star Tribune, these hybrids cost $557,000 each, 80 percent of which is paid for by the federal government. Local sources fund the other 20 percent. Standard city buses cost $356,500.

The hybrids that Metro Transit has already been using get an average of 4.71 miles per the gallon, compared to a typical bus’s 3.86 miles per gallon. Metro Transit expects to save 338,000 gallons per year once the 172 total hybrid buses are running in five years.

The Star Tribune reports that “Metro Transit is expecting a 22 percent or greater improvement in fuel economy, which translates to 1,965 gallons of fuel per bus saved annually, along with less soot and other pollutants.? The hybrid buses reduce emissions by 90 percent.

Metro Transit first introduced three hybrid buses in 2002. From this Tuesday until the end of the year, hybrid buses will travel various routes, offering free rides. On Mondays, routes 17 and 18, which include stops in the Nicollet Mall area, will also be free.

November 10, 2007

Facebook plans targeted advertisements

Facebook announced Tuesday that it plans to use target advertising based on user actions. Companies will now be able to build profile pages similar to those of typical users, though company pages won’t be able to access individuals’ profiles like friends do even if “users formally declare themselves ‘fans’ of a company,? according to the Star Tribune. Businesses will be able to tailor their ads to activities of users: if a friend buys a book, a business can use the friend’s photo to get others to take similar action. Profile information may also be used for targeted ads, allowing businesses to “fine-tune their audiences.?

A special coding Facebook calls “Beacon? can be embedded to allow outside sites to create alerts for other Facebook friends—if someone lists something on eBay, then a message can be sent to their friends to allow them to look at the listing.

This is another step in lowering the guard on user privacy, though Facebook won’t provide advertisers with identifying information. Criticism arose with the implementation of the news feed feature months ago, which allowed updates on friends’ actions. Some users used Facebook’s own groups feature to show how displeased they were with the “stalkerish? new add-on. Because of the response, Facebook allowed users to turn off that feature. The targeted ads plan allows users can control what they share, but they can’t choose to opt out of ads.

The other top social networking site, MySpace, currently lets businesses make their own profile pages and announced that “it would expand its targeting program to include more categories and more advertisers? on Monday.

November 9, 2007

Possible delays for MnDOT projects

State Transportation Commissioner and Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau announced Thursday that there may be delays in other state projects because of the funds drained by work on the new Interstate 35W bridge.

At a legislative hearing on Thursday, two Minnesota Department of Transportation financial specialists said that there is enough money “to pay for its schedule road construction program through February,? according to the Pioneer Press. Because of this, lawmakers did not request extra money for the department.

The federal government has given Minnesota $178.5 million and is promising an additional $195 million for a new bridge, according to the Star Tribune. But the Pioneer Press reports that “MnDOT needs legislative permission to spend $135 million more than its current budget to pay for both the bridge and its previously scheduled road projects.?

According to House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, the legislative panel will meet again in December, when they could make further adjustments to MnDOT’s spending level.

Keillher also expressed concerns about Molnau, telling Pioneer Press’s Bill Salisbury: “It is disingenuous and misleading to tell lawmakers one thing and members of the media another.? Minnesota Public Radio also reports that the Senate’s lead transportation expert “said he will effectively move to fire Molnau when lawmakers return in February.?

November 4, 2007

Continued support for Minnesota steel plant

The Indian company that plans to build a steel plant in northeastern Minnesota has agreed to comply with U.S. and international laws, said Gov. Tim Pawlenty on Wednesday.

Essar America’s Chief Executive Madhu Vuppuluri sent Pawlenty a letter assuring the governor that “ no investment or firm commitment will be made in Iran, unless and until permitted to do so under the applicable U.S. or international laws,? according to the Pioneer Press. The letter also said that Essar “considers its investments in the state of Minnesota of strategic importance both to Essar and to the state and people of Minnesota.?

Pawlenty now will offer state assistance for the plant after considering withdrawing support after suspicions of Essar dealings with Iran, including a negotiation “to build an $8 billion to $10 billion oil refinery in Iran,? according to the Pioneer Press. Such dealings would violate the Iran Country Sanctions Act, which “imposes sanctions on foreign companies that invest more than $20 million a year in Iran’s energy sector,? according to the Star Tribune.

Pawlenty sent Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice a letter on Monday to ask the U.S. State Department if Essar Global could potentially violate the act.

The proposed steel plant will cost $1.6 billion, be built in Itasca County and produce 2.5 million tons of steel per year, reports Bill Salisbury of the Pioneer Press. It would also provide 700 jobs to a region of Minnesota that has lost over 10,000 mining jobs since 1979. Itasca County is asking the Minnesota Legislature for over $60 million for roads, railroads, and various utility lines for the plant.

November 3, 2007

Pawlenty and Steger partner for the environment

Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Arctic explorer Will Steger are joining together against global climate change in Minnesota. They announced their partnership on Monday “after participating in a panel discussion on the impact of climate change on Lake superior’s economy, natural systems and tourism,? according to the Pioneer Press.

Pawlenty also said Monday that he hopes to join Steger on his trip to the Canadian Arctic this spring to observe the ice sheets Steger has noticed shrinking. Pawlenty hasn’t made any promises to join the expedition because of potential conflicts with the upcoming legislative session.

The “Making a Great Lake Superior? conference included discussion of “pollution, invasive species and shoreline development,? according to the Star Tribune. Those topics all have good news and comment from Prof. Deborah Swackhamer of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment said that there has been a decline in concentrations of “legacy contaminates? like DDT and PCBs.

Climate change has affected the lake, however, as ice cover on the lake is decreased and the “average summer water temperature is increasing 2 degrees a decade,? said Prof. Jay Austin of the University of Minnesota Duluth’s Large Lakes Observatory. According to the Star Tribune, Austin said that effects of these changes could mean more evaporation on the lake “and a drop in average water level.?

The Pioneer Press reports that both Pawlenty and Steger have plans to tour Lake Superior and also look at climate change’s effects on Minnesota’s northern forests.

October 28, 2007

New Dakota County 911 call center

Dakota County has a new system for 911 calls—one without handheld receivers. In their places, the new center has equipped headsets and flat-panel touch screens that show the caller’s location that can be forwarded to emergency response vehicles like fire engines, ambulances, or squad cars. There will be 23 workstations with six computer screens each.

The computer technology cost $6.3 million, and construction of the 25,000 square foot center was an additional $7.8 million. The Dakota Communications Center, located in Empire Township, south of Rosemount will open on Dec. 9, according to the Pioneer Press.

Other 911 centers in Dakota County, five total, “will transfer over their operations and shut their doors by the end of the year,? according to the Pioneer Press. Within the first three years, they expect to save $2.4 million in operating expenses, says the center’s executive director, Kent Therkelsen.

Studies for a new dispatching system began in 1997 and the 9/11 attacks brought grants as incentives for connecting to other agency dispatch systems, Therkelsen told the Star Tribune. Currently, Hennepin, Ramsey, Anoka and Carver counties use that new regional system to communicate with one another.

The new system, says Therkelsen, will allow contact with volunteer firefighters across the county and give care instruction to callers with medical needs before paramedics arrive.

The center will handle over 400,000 calls a year, and uses the same 800 megahertz regional system Hennepin County used during the I-35W bridge collapse.

Anoka County-Blaine Airport expansion

Last Tuesday, Anoka County Commissioners and their private partners reached a decision on the airport’s expansion plans.

The new plan is for quick construction that are “targeted toward corporate jets – the same types of planes that could be diverted form St. Paul’s Holman Field during the 2008 GOP Convention,? according to the Pioneer Press. The Anoka airport hopes to be complete an expansion of a hangar-and-office complex by the convention date.

The Metropolitan Airports Commission needs to approve the plan, with the earliest vote date on Nov. 19. Following that, the Federal Aviation Administration will have to approve the designs, which could take several months, Joel LeVahn, attorney and on of the partners to the Anoka County airport expansion, told the Pioneer Press.

LeVahn says that if everything can’t be finalized by December, there could be a problem.

LeVahn told the Star Tribune that the airport “isn’t well-respected in the private community? and that he is hoping that will change with the improvements. Blaine’s airport is one of several reliever airports that could be used if the Secret Services close the downtown St. Paul reliever airport around the time of the Republican Convention. Compared to some of the other airports, Blaine’s is much closer to the downtowns of St. Paul and Minneapolis.