Making the Case for ROI in Sustainable IT Projects


© 2009 Diana G. Oblinger and John Walda

EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 44, no. 6 (November/December 2009): 6–7

Diana G. Oblinger ( is President and Chief Executive Officer of EDUCAUSE. John Walda ( is President and Chief Executive Officer of the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO).

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Faced with shrinking budgets and a growing realization of the role that information technology plays as both an energy consumer and a potential partner in the quest for a sustainable campus, IT departments in colleges and universities confront a dilemma: Should they ignore potential green initiatives until the financial crisis eases, or can the quest for sustainability be promoted as green on two fronts — leading not only to a more environmentally conscious campus but also to financial returns in the long run?

Making the case for a return on investment (ROI) is not a new exercise for campus CIOs and CBOs, who often collaborate when extra funds need to be squeezed from tight budgets to bankroll high-priority projects that may fall outside the normal operational budget. In this process, CIOs need to clearly articulate the critical importance of certain projects, whereas CBOs need to gain a good understanding of what is involved and the potential outcomes, so that together they can articulate the ROI for the campus and present a persuasive argument for investment. These same principles apply to IT sustainability projects. In today's economic downturn, presidents, provosts, and boards are less able to allocate resources into sustainability projects for the sole reason of social responsibility. But incorporating these green efforts into a strong business plan that shows a return on investment may result in a winning argument, even when the budget is limited.

It is an argument that needs to be made. In the United States, the federal government is becoming increasingly committed to sustainability and is looking at legislation to address climate change.1 Likewise, sustainability is growing in importance in higher education as campuses try to use less and conserve more energy in order to do their part in the fight to slow the effects of global climate change. As of this writing, 650 college presidents and chancellors have shown their support by signing the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment, promising to take steps that will change their consumption practices.2 Leading associations in higher education, including EDUCAUSE and the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO), are focusing on sustainability. EDUCAUSE designated "Sustainability and Green IT" as one of three key themes to explore in 2009, following the EDUCAUSE Summit on IT Greening and Sustainability in November 2008.3 For four years in a row, NACUBO has hosted the Smart and Sustainable Campuses Conference, and sustainability was a featured theme of its annual conference in June 2009.F4

IT departments can be key players in campus sustainability efforts. Servers, workstations, laptops, and centralized and departmental networks all use large amounts of energy, contributing to carbon emissions on campus. But simple changes can have a major impact. Stanford University created the position of "Director of Sustainable IT" to lead its green IT efforts and to look for ways to implement sustainability practices while saving costs. The University of California at Irvine is at the forefront of implementing measures that address sustainability, earning a 2008 Governor's Environmental and Economic Leadership Award for its Sustainable Transportation Project. The goal — to reduce emissions while lowering costs — has included projects like desktop power management and the consolidation of underutilized servers. Other campuses, such as the College of New Jersey, have combated print waste by charging students for any printing above a set allotment. Greater accessibility to new technologies has also enabled campuses to curb staff travel by allowing for remote workdays or by offering faculty development through web conferencing. Computing advances have opened the door to server virtualization and cloud computing or shared services for both energy and cost savings.

Although many of these changes were prompted by environmental concerns, most also mean good economics, either through curbing the campus utility bill or leading to less consumption. By procuring energy-efficient equipment, working toward server consolidation, and/or practicing better cooling techniques in data centers to reduce energy and address waste disposal, campuses can see real savings. For example, Stanford deployed the power management feature in its already installed desktop management software. The university estimates savings of 180 kilowatt hours per computer annually, resulting in over $200,000 in electricity savings per year. Likewise, Indiana University is beginning a project to make use of power management tools found in the Microsoft Windows operating system. One-time rebates will be given to participating departments on a per-machine basis as an incentive to cover the staff time required to change machine settings. The university estimates that campuses not currently using any power-saving measures could save up to $200,000 annually per 5,000 desktops. Meanwhile, at the University of California at Irvine, the Administrative Computing Services division has invested $200,000 in server virtualization during the past three years. Currently operating 120 virtual servers, it has reduced energy usage by about 371,000 kilowatt hours annually, leading to a $250,000 reduction in equipment costs over conventional servers, in addition to an estimated annual savings of $40,000 in power consumption.

Before beginning any initiative on sustainability, including those in campus IT departments, institutions need to measure their current energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions and overall IT budget. This baseline inventory will set the starting point by highlighting the areas where the implementation of sustainable IT projects could be most beneficial. These measurements can also be a critical tool in demonstrating success in later years. The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) offers its Sustainability Tracking, Assessment, & Rating System (STARS), a suite of online assessment tools that campuses can use to gauge their carbon footprint ( The Campus Sustainability Assessment Project (CSAP) proposes metrics for campuses to measure their sustainability efforts. CSAP also features a searchable database that lets users track, read, and find contact information based on assessment from across the country; in addition, users can search for reports that meet "best practices" criteria set by CSAP (

Regardless of where a campus stands in its sustainability efforts — whether creating a baseline inventory or engaging in long-range programs — central and distributed IT must have a seat at the planning table. As consumers of energy and producers of greenhouse gases, IT organizations have a critical role to play in the move toward green IT. In this process, CIOs must work with CBOs. By "making the case" — by showing that green IT can be truly green, through cost savings or ROI — these leaders can contribute to a campus that is both financially healthy and environmentally conscious.

  1. For example, see "House Passes Historic Waxman-Markey Clean Energy Bill," news release, June 26, 2009, <>.
  2. American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment, 2009, <>.
  3. See the EDUCAUSE resource pages: <>; <>. The EDUCAUSE white paper "The Role of IT in Campus Sustainability Efforts," January 2009, <>, captures the key findings from the EDUCAUSE summit.
  4. See <>, <>, and the NACUBO "Sustainability" web page: <>.