U.S. forces public sector agencies to buy green IT

The U.S. government plans to require federal agencies to buy desktops and PC monitors that are consume energy more efficiently and include reduced levels of toxic chemicals — a requirement that likely will affect corporate users as well because of the government’s massive buying power.

The Department of Defense, NASA and the General Services Administration jointly detailed an interim rule on the new purchasing requirements in a notice published in the Federal Register on Dec. 26, and they are accepting comments on the proposal through Feb. 25. The new rule formalizes the use within the government of the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool, which some agencies and private-sector companies have already adopted.

EPEAT is a three-tiered rating system developed by the Green Electronics Council in Portland, Ore. Under EPEAT, qualifying desktop systems, laptops and monitors are awarded gold, silver and bronze ratings based on how well they meet 51 environmental criteria, such as ease of disassembly and the lack of paints or coatings that aren’t compatible with recycling or reuse.

Products are required to conform to 23 of the criteria to get a bronze rating. Earning a silver or gold designation is dependent on meeting more stringent EPEAT standards, such as having 90% of the materials in a system be reusable or recyclable, or using batteries that are free of lead, cadmium and mercury.

The federal government has a total installed base of 6.7 million desktops and laptops across civilian and military agencies, and it buys about 2.2 million new systems annually, according to Shawn McCarthy, research director for government vendor programs at market research firm IDC. Because the government is such a large user, PC vendors will be hustling to comply with the new federal rule, McCarthy said. And since the vendors don’t make PCs specifically for government users, he said, “you will see spillover into other sectors, much as you did once the government pushed Energy Star compliance back in the mid-1990s.” Energy Star is an energy efficiency rating system for various products that is being extended to servers by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Last January, President Bush signed an executive order requiring EPEAT compliance within the government. While that order set a direction for federal agencies, putting it into action required amendments to the Federal Acquisition Regulation purchasing standards. The acquisition councils for civilian agencies and the Defense Department have now agreed on the needed changes to the standards, according to last month’s Federal Register notice.

Only a few vendors have earned gold EPEAT ratings thus far. For instance, Dell Inc. has six products with gold ratings and 72 at the silver level. Hewlett-Packard Co. has earned a gold rating for one desktop system, plus 73 silver ratings, while Apple Inc. has 17 products that meet the requirements for a silver.

A number of major agencies are already using EPEAT, including NASA, the EPA and the Department of Homeland Security. And some private-sector companies have adopted it as well. For instance, health maintenance organization Kaiser Permanente said in October that over the past year, it had purchased 55,271 desktop computers, 57,165 monitors and more than 9,600 laptops that met the EPEAT criteria.

The arrival of EPEAT as a purchasing standard isn’t a surprise to hardware vendors. Wayne Rifer, EPEAT operations manager at the Green Electronics Council, said the group includes PC makers that were involved in the development of the rating system.

A big reason why the vendors took part in developing a standard designed for national adoption was concern that various state governments might adopt their own environmental rules governing electronics purchases. “That is a very strong motivator — probably the core motivator for them to be engaged,” Rifer said.

He added that he thinks vendors will seek more silver and gold ratings than bronze ones. Achieving gold is “pretty tough,” Rifer said. But since the middle of last year, he said, PC makers have been producing products that are eligible for gold ratings, which must be verified by the council’s EPEAT team.

Ratings higher than bronze are also a requirement for some PC buyers, according to Rifer. For instance, he said that the Canadian government mandates at least a silver rating on products and gives extra points during the contracting process to bidders that have gold ratings.

One bare-minimum EPEAT requirement would put the U.S. on par with a directive on the restriction of hazardous substances that took effect across the European Union last July. The directive, known by the acronym RoHS, bars electronics products that include lead, mercury, cadmium and some other substances from being imported into EU member countries.

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