Green maze requires some navigation

A few months ago, Harvey Betan, a business continuity consultant in N.Y., was helping a client interview a potential disaster recovery facility provider. There was nothing unusual about the meeting until the client asked an eye-opening question: Did the provider use alternative sources of energy, like solar or wind power? No, it didn’t, but the discussion continued as Betan and his client — Jeff Saper, CIO at strategic communications firm Robinson Lerer & Montgomery LLC — drove away in Saper’s Ford Escape, a hybrid car.

“I thought it was the perfect opportunity,” Saper says. “They were on top of a hill with a flat warehouse facility that easily could have housed solar.” Saper passed on that provider and is continuing his search farther north, in upstate New York.

Clearly, environmental concerns are near and dear to Saper’s heart, and not just for the sake of the bottom line. In his mind, it is IT’s responsibility as the biggest consumer of electricity in the company to set the table not just for reduced energy consumption and efficient computer use, but for all things green. Through his own IT-initiated green program, backed by the CEO, he has reduced servers by 50 per cent to 75 per cent through virtualization; has adjusted the data centre’s cooling system for peak efficiency; and purchases only Energy Star equipment that also meets environmental criteria set by the Green Electronics Council and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The firm also donates old equipment to charitable organizations or uses Dell Inc.’s asset recovery program; has moved some users to thin clients and all to LCD monitors; equipped employees with laptops and broadband so they can telecommute; purchased solar-powered battery adapters for users’ BlackBerry devices and Razr phones; and configured Microsoft Active Directory to automatically power down users’ PCs and monitors. Plus, employees are continuously educated on environmental actions they can take, like printing documents double-sided and buying reusable water bottles and coffee mugs.

“There’s no question that my personal, social mind-set goes a long way toward why we’re implementing green initiatives,” Saper says.

But there’s always more you can do, he says, and it doesn’t take long before you hit a brick wall (note his ongoing search for a green DR facility) or one of those all-too-common green catch-22s. The fact is, while it’s become fairly straightforward to buy energy-efficient PCs and reduce the electrical load of the data centre, there’s nothing simple about tackling the full gamut of environmental issues raised by the corporate world’s dependence on technology.

Outside the data centre, the trade-offs and complexities of going green are rampant. Before purchasing an energy-efficient fluorescent light bulb, for instance, you might want to research how to dispose of it, considering that it contains small amounts of mercury. And if you purchase natural products from environmentally conscious companies, you might be surprised to learn how often those Earth-friendly ingredients are shipped from overseas locales, adding to the world’s carbon emission load.

It’s no different in IT. As Simon Mingay, an analyst at Gartner Inc., puts it, “The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.”

Take the European Union’s RoHS (Restriction of Hazardous Substances) directive. Because RoHS requires electronics manufacturers to remove substances like lead from their products, the new manufacturing processes they developed for their circuit boards end up consuming more energy because they run at higher temperatures. Mingay also points to the Green Electronics Council’s Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT), for example.

The online tool helps companies compare computer equipment based on a seemingly exhaustive list of environmental attributes, such as percentage of toxic and recycled materials, energy efficiency, ease of disassembly, upgradability, packaging, take-back options and performance criteria. However, EPEAT currently evaluates only monitors and PCs, and it doesn’t yet compare the equipment’s “embodied energy,” or the amount of energy that went into manufacturing, assembling, shipping and distributing the product and all its parts.

“It only looks at the end-use phase, because that’s what everyone understands,” Mingay says. But research suggests that embodied energy is where the focus should eventually be, because there’s about an 80-20 split between the energy consumed in making and distributing the product vs. using it, he says. That is the next frontier for vendors to begin differentiating themselves, says Mingay.