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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.?