Where Does Your Institution Stand?

min read

Media coverage of sustainability and "green" issues is hard to ignore these days. But less clear is a specific understanding of what this agenda means within higher ed IT organizations. For starters, it's useful to self-assess whether your campus is a leading innovator on all things "green" or satisfied to remain inconspicuous in the middle of the pack. If your institution is trailing but wants to assert a leadership role in environmental stewardship, you need to get engaged to understand what it will take to catch up and how IT can be a leader, not just a contributor, to such an effort.

What You Should Know

Although IT might not be the largest component in your institution's greenhouse gas (GHG) inventory, it probably constitutes the fastest growing element in your carbon footprint. Do you know how large your institution's GHG is? Do you have an idea of the main sources?

You can obtain an initial baseline by seeing how many of the "Fifty Questions, What Business and IT Officers Need to Know about their Campus Carbon Emissions" you can answer for your campus.

IT-specific questions include:

  • What are your campus data center temperature settings, and who decides them?
  • If the operating temperature is significantly lower than the lowest component temperature specification, what is the reason? A margin of safety for reliability, pressure from equipment manufacturers, data center personnel comfort, longstanding practice, or some other reason?
  • Do you have a working relationship with your campus's chief facilities engineer, the person who heads HVAC services, and the campus energy manager?
  • On your campus, what percentage of monitors are still CRTs? Do you have a program to transition the remaining CRTs to LCD panels? And how does your campus get individuals to enable, rather than deactivate, sleep features?

You're certainly not alone if some of these questions are difficult to answer. But awareness of baseline data is an essential precursor to solving a technical problem, albeit of a different technical form than IT leaders are experienced at solving.

Actions You Can Take Within Two Weeks

The results of this type of self-assessment will enable you to take direct actions to reduce your campus's impact on the environment. Here are some immediate, practical IT steps to implement if they're not already in place:

  • Decommission or consolidate unneeded or underutilized hardware.
  • Ensure that your campus procurement policy requires EPEAT or ENERGY STAR rated equipment wherever possible.
  • Enable server, desktop, and printer power management settings.
  • Raise the temperature in campus data centers.
  • Create a cooler/warmer aisle configuration within campus data centers for equipment racks.

fun before and after photos

UC Irvine Administrative Computing Services Data Center Manager Paul Crump illustrates life in the old ("cold") computer center with his heavy winter clothing and the new ("green") computer center with his summer clothes. Setting ambient data center temperature and humidity levels based on hardware manufacturer specifications can significantly reduce energy consumption.

Three to Six Months Out

At the risk of overstating a one-size-fits-all formula that doesn't fit all organizations or settings, here are some additional suggestions to pursue once the immediate actions have been taken:

  • Complete an energy audit for campus data centers.
  • Implement server virtualization to eliminate physical servers and to better utilize fewer machines.
  • Replace CRT monitors with more efficient LCD monitors, capturing utility savings to fund this campus-wide upgrade.
  • Contain data center hot aisles or air-supply aisles, and replace data center fixed flow perforated floor tiles with higher flow adjustable tiles to improve air flow.

diagram of system

By pumping cold air into the areas of the computer room that require colder temperatures and keeping warmer air in areas that don't, the data center reduces energy requirements. A raised floor with perforated tiles permits delivery of cold air from the computer room air handler (CRAH) directly to the targeted areas, while the warm air circulates above the colder sections as it returns to the CRAH for cooling.

Diagram Source: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory


At the One-Year Mark

The following actions take additional time to plan and implement, but are often realistic to launch, and possibly complete, within a year:

  • Seriously consider implementing desktop virtualization.
  • Assess and develop a plan to replace data center equipment with more efficient units.
  • Create centralized control and monitoring of chilled water units.
  • Launch a project to install "air-side economizer" cooling. (Air-side economizers use outside air with suitable temperature and humidity, filtering and distributing it through the "cold" aisles while venting the "hot" aisles directly outdoors. Cooling coils only function when the outdoor temperature or humidity is too high.)

Become a Green Thought Leader on Campus

It's also important to be an active participant in your campus-wide sustainability plans. Colleges and universities that have made a commitment to become carbon-neutral have tackled a daunting challenge. For most institutions, renewable power is not a feasible investment, even when subsidized. For the next 10 years, much more progress will be made reducing carbon footprints on the consumption side than on the supply side of the power equation. Major energy-conserving and energy-retrofit projects will be the most immediate, most cost-effective, and most successful initial strategy. But unlike the energy-retrofit projects of the past decade, when a 10-15 percent energy dividend was considered success, now institutions are looking for projects that can reduce the associated carbon footprint 30-50 percent and still prove self-financing. We need projects and practices that go well beyond incremental improvement.

IT leaders bring a lot of intellect to this challenge. For one thing, IT leaders understand scale, relevant because attaining carbon-neutrality is a massive problem that demands large-scale solutions. In addition, IT leaders bring to work every day an inherent drive to solve complex, multifaceted problems using technology. Again, a basic match! IT leaders like to bring facts, data, and expertise to bear on problems, exactly what is needed for climate solutions. So if you believe that your leadership only extends across IT operations, think more broadly. Of course, demonstrating tangible progress on the kind of two week, 3-6 month, and one-year carbon-reducing projects outlined above will be the first step in establishing your broader role as a climate solutions leader in your institution.

Wendell Brase ([email protected]) is Vice Chancellor, Administrative & Business Services, at UC Irvine and Chair, University of California Climate Solutions Steering Group.

Mark Askren ([email protected]) is Assistant Vice Chancellor, Administrative Computing Services at UC Irvine and a member of the University of California Information Technology Leadership Council.