Where Green and IT Meet

By Linda L. Briggs

Here are some interesting facts you may not know: U.S. colleges and universities spend nearly $2 billion each year on energy, according to the federal government. And the Department of Energy (D'E) estimates that the average PC wastes up to 400 kilowatt-hours of electricity per year simply by running at full power when no user is present.

What should this mean to you? Simply this: As an IT manager, how much do you know about your school’s energy management program and systems – some of which are sophisticated software programs sharing the campus network? Although the cost of energy is soaring and computers are voracious energy consumers on campus, many in IT know very little about what their school is doing to save energy. That’s partly because most energy dollars don’t come out of the typical IT budget. The energy it takes to run PCs and servers across campus generally belongs to the facilities side, and is regarded as a set cost of doing business.

But those perceptions – that energy consumption is a fixed cost, and that IT isn’t involved – are both increasingly out-of-date. Computers are playing a growing role in energy management, as schools rely on sophisticated computerized energy management systems that rival the complexity of mission-critical systems on campus. Adopting a strategic approach to energy management, especially as new buildings are planned or retrofitted, can lower a university’s energy bills by 30 percent or more, according to figures from the government’s Energy Star Web site.

Computerized energy management systems, also called building automation systems or direct digital control systems, offer software and hardware specifically for measuring and controlling energy consumption. Some share the campus network. Others require dedicated servers and networks. Energy management systems typically connect with different systems across campus to collect data on everything from room temperatures, CO2 levels, and occupancy rates, to the energy used by soda machines and exit signs. IT can also play a critical role in helping to select, install, and manage these complex systems.

Still, what’s the bottom-line payoff when IT gets involved in helping select solid products for energy management? Answer: Significant savings to the overall university budget, which ultimately benefits everyone. IT also can make sure that the right products are selected, and can work with the operations side to help make sure the systems are fully utilized.

According to Debra Rowe, a professor at Michigan’s Oakland Community College who has been teaching energy management for 27 years, computerized energy management systems have been standard for some time now, but many of them aren’t being fully used. Reasons range from lack of staff knowledge or inadequate information from the system’s vendor, to an over-tasked facilities manager who d'esn’t have time to implement or manage the system. But Rowe, a fellow in The Association of University Leaders for a Sustainable Future, says energy management systems “can be incredibly efficient, and [serve as] a learning tool for students.”

At Syracuse University in New York, the IT and building maintenance factions on campus work together for the common good. The Department of Energy and Computing Management is staffed with sophisticated maintenance personnel, but aided by IT staff. Both sides eventually report up to a director of energy and computing management.

Steve Lloyd is associate director for energy at Syracuse, where he oversees the computerized management and scheduling of building mechanical systems. On the IT side is systems administrator Michael Kearns, who works for an IT group but estimates he spends 50 percent of his time supporting the computing needs of the energy group. That includes selecting and purchasing servers and workstations, as well as managing the software applications that they use. Kearns admits he d'esn’t know what other schools are doing, but adds that it’s becoming pretty standard to have facilities and IT work together. “We work pretty much in lockstep with [the energy group]. The computing requirements are so great [for facilities], and there are also disaster recovery, backups and restores [to deal with].” He reports that Syracuse uses a Windows-based software product called Continuum, from TAC. The energy system shares the school’s fiber network, one of the reasons that IT is involved. The computing group also is responsible for the energy system’s hardware – IBM midrange xSeries computers that serve as dedicated energy servers.

At the University of Michigan, IT planning manager David Anderson works on the building maintenance side, but sees more and more of a melding of IT and building maintenance functions as energy management systems grow in complexity. “These systems are becoming more complicated in terms of the IT world,” he says, adding that he’s fortunate to have a background in computers. It has helped build trust with the IT staff, who understandably don’t always want to “hand over the keys” to someone outside IT. Michigan’s energy conservation program, in place since the 1970s, uses roughly $50 million worth of equipment to save around $10 million a year in energy costs, Anderson estimates.

If you’re ready for more information on the overlap between energy management and IT, there’s plenty available. For starters, there are a number of resources specific to energy savings in higher education at the Energy Star Web site. Energy Star, a joint program of the D'E and the Environmental Protection Agency, encourages energy-efficient appliances, including computers. Resources include a calculator to estimate potential savings, lists of product vendors, and suggestions on ways to get started.

Additionally, on the Higher Education Climate Action Partnership’s Web site, you can view case studies and lists of mainstream higher-ed associations that offer advice about how to measure and reduce greenhouse gas consumption. Also available through HECAP are presentations on energy management from the Association of College and University Business Officers’ November 2005 “Smart and Sustainable Campus Conference.” An October 2005 white paper from the Society for College and University Planning offers resources and discussion about the role higher education can play in energy management, and the bigger picture of sustainability. Finally, the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education will hold its 2006 annual conference in October 2006.

Linda L. Briggs is a freelance writer based in San Diego, Calif.

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