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  • Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

Efficiency is over-rated
September 15, 2008 - 2:37pm

I got an email recently from a PR person, including a link to a report her client is currently pushing. The client is a major supplier to information technology departments, both on campus and off. The report focuses on energy efficiency (hence the tie-in to sustainability) within IT operations.

According to the report, Higher Ed does a worse job of managing energy used to operate IT than business, the federal government, state and local governments, or K-12 schools. The statistic presented is that only 43% of IHEs surveyed actively manage IT energy consumption (by comparison, 63% of corporations surveyed do).

I suspect that the response which the sender hoped for from me was something along the lines of "hey, folks, we're falling behind -- let's get on the stick!" If so, I'm afraid she's going to be somewhat disappointed. My actual reaction is something along the lines of "wow! we're actively addressing energy efficiency two-thirds as often as private enterprise! that's great!"

I don't mean to be sarcastic. (I do get sarcastic, but not this time.) I really do think that "two-thirds as well" is pretty good, all things considered. What falls under the rubric of "all things"?

Well, first off, efficiency is not a driving principle on many campuses. Not that we favor inefficiency, exactly, but of all the things we value, educational quality, student engagement, professionalism, and lots of other stuff come out ahead of efficiency. Additionally, to actually measure any sort of efficiency you need to divide units of output by units of the particular input you're concerned with (in this case, energy) -- anybody got a good, hard measure of higher ed output they'd be willing to share?

Second (and, perhaps, more important), I don't believe that energy efficiency should ever be the top consideration for an organization. After all, the most efficient any outfit can be is to use zero energy, and that's easily achieved -- just go out of business. (Can anybody say "Lehman Brothers"?) The truth of the matter is that, even considering full-cost accounting of contributions to climate disruption, all organizations which have a legitimate reason for being (including, let's presume, colleges and universities) can use energy in ways such that the benefits to society exceed the costs. simple efficiency calculations are misleading in their simplicity.

Third, I have to admit that I'm highly dependent on campus IT infrastructure to get my daily work done. The considerations which IT managers list as being of higher priority than energy efficiency -- reliability, up-time, durability, ease-of-use, performance -- I'm in favor of all those things. Think about it -- if energy efficiency is as high a priority as reliability, then an organization would be acting rationally to accept a 10% decrease in reliability to achieve a 10.5% decrease in energy utilization. I don't know about your campus (actually, I'm pretty sure I do), but at Greenback, 90% system reliability is simply a non-starter.

Look, energy efficiency is important. Achieving energy efficiency for the campus is a large part of my job and the jobs of the folks around me. But decreased energy use is always a trade-off, and we have to look for trade-offs that make sense. In the case of IT, the good news is that the same technologies which improve energy efficiency can also increase things like reliability, up-time, durability, performance (and all with no decrease in ease of use). Additionally, they can reduce total cost of ownership.

So, energy efficient IT doesn't have to be a top priority for campus CIOs. It can be a second-tier priority; things will come out just fine. And leaving it a second-tier priority allows better for running the IT equipment we currently own into the ground before we replace it. You see, when that vendor report got to the part about recommended action steps, the first two items on the list started with the verb "buy". Call me old-fashioned, but I've never found throwing out stuff that still works just fine to be the height of sustainability.

 

 

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