Breaking the Ice

Two years ago this February, I went for a routine exam at a major hospital center here in Boston.  I was sitting on the exam table, dressed in my disposable gown. As I dangled my feet over the exam table, I looked at the PC in the corner. It was on. So was the monitor, which was showing the Windows screen saver. I remembered seeing computers in other rooms, all on, with the Windows screen saver running. I asked my doctor:  “Does anyone shut these off at night?” The answer was no.

I thought I would try some back-of-the-envelope calculations to gauge potential power management savings. The average computer at that time consumed 100 watts per hour. The monitor, an old-fashioned CRT, added another 83 watts. If there were 100 such computer setups in the exam rooms and administrative areas, the hospital would require 18.3 kilowatts per hour to power them. At a rate of 15 cents per kilowatt, that’s a $160,300 annual cost just to power the a subset of the IT equipment.

When I got back to my office, I emailed the hospital’s CFO. Three weeks later, I received an email from one of his employees. He said that I had some energy saving ideas that might be worth exploring. He invited me to come to his office for a meeting.

And that’s where the story ends. Why? Because I had a crisis of confidence. I couldn’t believe that this prestigious teaching hospital with an annual operating budget of $500 million needed me to tell them how much electricity they could save through power management. Besides, what if I was wrong? Although Tech Networks had just been written up on the front page of the Boston Globe for our energy-saving Earth-PCs, I was by no means an expert on Green IT at that point.

Instead of going to meet with them, I referred them to a company that specializes in power management software. I checked in with the company’s sales rep a few months later. He said that there had not been a sale.

If that hospital had implemented power-management software, they could have reduced the electricity required to power those PCs by 60%. In terms of COemissions, that’s the same as taking 83 passenger vehicles off the road. What if I had managed to win them over?

I drive a Prius. But even if I drove my Prius for 100 years, I couldn’t match the CO2 savings achievable by turning on power management on this hospital’s PCs for just a single year.

I subsequently realized that my company has an important role to play in helping other businesses transition to a more sustainable form of computing. Information Technology is a resource requiring massive amounts of labor and materials to design, build, deploy, use, decommission and destroy.  Our mission has always been to help people use this technology. But our mission now is to help people use the right technology in the right ways.  And that technology must be respectful of our planet.

In order to be viable in the context of today’s economic challenges, it is important that each sustainability initiative be both cost- and time-effective. Specific Green IT solutions make economic sense for some businesses but not for others. Without a full understanding of business needs, it is impossible to determine what computing solutions will best meet them.


Negawatts: The watts saved when a decision is made to save electricity not through efficiency but simply by ceasing to perform the activity that required electricity. For example, many companies have discontinued scheduled full virus scans, thereby saving the energy that was required to scan the entire hard drive. I got this term from a white paper on Green IT from KPMG.

I love the term “negawatts.” It invites us to re-examine every routine activity from a utilitarian perspective. Does the client really need a redundant power supply on every server? What if Tech Networks just kept a few HP server power supplies on hand in case of emergency? If an hour of downtime for some servers is acceptable, why not save electricity and resources by ordering a server with just one power supply? Anyway, a server with redundant power supplies is not truly redundant. The circuit board that allows power supply failover is a single point of failure.

Here’s another area where negawatts make sense: Stop leaving your office computer on at night so that you can access it remotely. There are so many other ways for you to get email and files without leaving your computer on. Remote access software vendors need to own up to the fact that their software forces subscribers to waste energy.

At Tech Networks, most employees use their own laptop to access company resources. Whether they are at the office, at home, or at an Internet cafe, the process is the same.

Many of us take the commuter rail to the office. With a broadband card, we are able to hook up and get the day started early. Our resource manager starts deploying the troops from his seat on the train at 6:00AM.

Tech Networks also pays for 50% of employees’ public transportation passes. I guess keeping cars off the road doesn’t earn us negawatts, but it sure counts as negamiles!

Is Big Business Sustainable?

In most industries, large-scale enterprises can extract resources, create product, and distribute finished goods more efficiently than locally-owned, small-scale businesses. They can use their economic clout to develop new products, broadcast marketing messages to a national audience, and influence government regulation to their benefit.

Despite real economic disadvantages, the small business continues to flourish in some market segments. Small biz advantages include agility, understanding community needs, and ability to cost-effectively utilize resources not easily aggregated for use by larger-scale industries.

More recently, small firms have been touted as one of the building blocks for creating strong local economies. Local businesses can contribute to a community’s development by involving more local partners, creating jobs and offering fair wages to employees.  But are small businesses more sustainable?  We could argue that small businesses–unable to take advantage of economies of scale–waste more resources than larger businesses. Think of the prepared foods section at a little-trafficked store.  Markets, catering shops, and restaurants–most of them small businesses–generate  27 million tons of food waste annually.

High-volume distribution centers such as Walmart would appear to be the most efficient method of distributing foodstuffs and consumer goods.  One would think that efficient distribution would be the sustainable choice.  Especially at a store like Walmart, which has the following environmental goals:
1. To be supplied 100 percent by renewable energy.
2. To create zero waste.
3. To sell products that sustain our resources and environment.

So, should we all shop at Wal-mart?  The answer is:  “No.” Sustainability cannot be achieved by centralizing resources and distributing on a large scale. According to “It’s Not Easy Being Green:  The Truth Behind Wal-mart’s Environmental Makeover,” big business means bigger environmental impacts.  The average Wal-Mart supercenter is a 200,000+ square foot behemoth sitting on 20 to 30 acres of land.  There are over 2,200 supercenters in the United States, and they are adding more at such a rate that even if they meet their goal of reducing carbon emissions by 20% by 2013, in the interim, they will have built enough new stores to completely offset emissions reductions at existing stores.

Let’s return to small businesses and vibrant local economies.  Suppose that local businesses are created to fulfill local needs.  When local businesses use local resources, sustainability and environmental protection become a necessary component of the production life cyle.  More importantly, it will not be possible to produce locally-made goods at the same variety and scale that we do in today’s global market.  Not all resources required for producing products will be locally available. Also, production labor will be priced at the local prevailing rate.  This means that the price of locally-made goods will be more congruent with the time required to produce it.  It will once again be less expensive to have a product repaired than to replace it.

Sociologist Paul Ray, who pioneered the concept of “cultural creatives,” estimates that 36 percent of Americans (45 percent of voters) fall into what he calls the “Wisdom Culture Paradigm.” Among its characteristics are: an “anti-materialism . . . that comes partly from movements like voluntary simplicity and ecological sustainability”; an “emerging post-Eighties dimension [that] wants outright prevention of ecological destruction, a slowing of economic growth for saving the environment . . . and an anti-big business, anti-globalization position”; and “a mainstream concern for relationships, altruism and idealism.”

Much of what we hold dear is neither enhanced nor accrued through improved efficiency.  We do not seek to love efficiently, to eat efficiently, or to experience beauty efficiently.  Then let us not praise big industry for consuming our natural resources efficiently.  Small, local businesses are more sustainable in the long run not because they are more efficient, but, because they are less efficient.

Down at L Street with the Brownies

Does anyone know where you can get a New Year’s Day high that beats watching the L Street Brownies take their annual ocean dip? I suppose you could argue that the elation of actually participating in this frigid fracas might surpass the vicarious thrill of the spectator. Alas, chilblain sufferer that I am, it is not my fate to join the mad force of fired-up bathers who quickly dived into the ocean and who just as quickly jumped out.

The cheering, the bravado, and the hoopla as the Brownies willfully expose themselves to the elements are tremendously uplifting.  Even more inspiring was the crippled young man who hitched a ride on his friend’s back for the plunge into the briny shallows. The man stood in the water for a few seconds buoyed by the cold water. Then it was back to the beach again, on the back of his friend.

Talk about a feel good moment.

Back to Basics for 2009

Here are three basic New Year’s resolutions for 2009:

1.  Stop killing people

2.  Stop destroying the planet

3.  Make sure that everyone has enough to eat.

That’s all.  Let’s not make it more complicated than it is.

Here’s how I’m doing my part:

I don’t support war.

I only eat plant-based foods

I have a small carbon footprint and it’s getting smaller all the time

and, new for 2009, I plan to give away half of my income.