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Watching the watts with green IT

Universities are looking at ways to make information technology on campus more energy efficient and eco-friendly.

By DIANE PETERS | SEP 13 2010
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Illustrations by James Joyce.

Right now, it’s just a pile of dirt, but within the year the construction site on the southwest side of the University of Waterloo campus will become one of the most ecologically advanced university buildings in Canada. The faculty of environment building will use solar energy, have a rooftop garden and will be shaped like an “L,” covering most of the building beside it so that it will encroach on as little green space as possible.

That existing building is the bluntly named Environment 2. Brownish red, squat, with dark hallways and difficult-to-find lobbies and stairwells, this 1980s edifice couldn’t win an architectural or green accolade if it tried. But just as the building’s future neighbour is part of a movement towards more efficient buildings, the staff at Environment 2 are part of a trend too: they’re trying to curb the huge energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions caused by technology.

Last year, the information technology department for the environment faculty, which resides in offices tucked behind a computer lab in the labyrinthine building, hired its first “green IT” coordinator to devise ways to curb the huge energy use of its computers, printers and fax machines.

The department staff brainstormed ways to conserve energy in the faculty’s numerous server rooms, began buying more efficient equipment, created evening shut-down programs on dozens of lab computers and set printers and copiers to print double-sided. The coordinator compiled a list of all technology in the entire faculty and discovered that if everyone shut down at the end of the work day, they would save $40,000 a year, or about two-thirds of their electricity bill.

“In environmental work, everyone talks about solar energy and using bamboo [as an eco-friendly material], but no one seems to consider computer equipment. Dealing with this is a really big part of helping the environment,” says Emily Kunz Purser, an undergraduate student in environment and business who has served as the green IT coordinator during two co-op work terms at the university over the last year.

In many ways, IT staff at Waterloo are not discovering anything revolutionary – we’ve been hearing about the importance of basic energy conservation for decades. But the realization that the ever-growing presence of technology in our lives has a massive environmental impact is new. CANARIE (Canada’s Advanced Research and Innovation Network) says that information technology accounts for between two and eight percent of global energy consumption, while the environmentally reviled aviation industry uses about two percent, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. What’s more, technology’s portion of total energy use will likely rise to 20 percent by 2020.

“If we are moving our society to an information society, we need to be clean about it,” says Mohamed Cheriet, professor in the department of automated manufacturing engineering at École de technologie supérieure in Montreal, part of the Université du Québec network. Dr. Cheriet is head of the GreenStar network, a two-year-old CANARIE-sponsored consortium of green-IT innovators.

The desire for more eco-friendly technology has inspired not just university IT departments but also university researchers from a range of disciplines. “It’s not a bad news story. It’s a phenomenal opportunity for research in Canada,” says Bill St. Arnaud, an Ottawa-based consultant who was previously the chief research officer for CANARIE.

When the idea of the carbon footprint of human behaviour first surfaced several years ago, it was clear we all needed to cut back on driving, flying and using clothes dryers and air conditioners. Technology could help, via e-mail, teleconferencing and electronic thermostats. But few people considered how much energy the energy-saving gizmos used themselves.

The thought did occur to University of Ottawa’s Trevor Hall, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Photonic Network Technology. His suspicions were later confirmed, following a day-long session about IT’s environmental impact that he attended three years ago at the European Conference on Optical Communication.

“Finally,” he says, “I had the facts and figures I needed to be able to show people that this needed attention. Prior to that, if I mentioned it to people, their eyes glazed over.”

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Around the same time, Ottawa’s Mr. St. Arnaud launched his blog, Green IT/Broadband and Cyber-Infrastructure. By 2009, funding opportunities for the sector began to surface through CANARIE and the green IT strategy of PROMPT (Partnerships for Research on Microelectronics, Photonics and Telecommunications), a Quebec group that links researchers with industry. High-tech telecommunications companies such as Cisco Canada and Ericsson also jumped on board, partnering with academic researchers.

On-campus groups are also taking up the cause to nip the cost of universities’ IT energy use. University of Alberta’s Green Computing Initiative, for example, runs a web page with stats on energy use by IT and a list of energy-reduction tips. York University, through its sustainability organization Yorkwise, advertises Unplug (PDF), a program that encourages university faculty and staff to turn off their computers at night and posts how much the school has saved because of better computer habits.

IT departments are catching on, too, buying more efficient hardware like LCD monitors, amalgamating energy-sucking server rooms (small server clusters are often under-used) and asking staff to share printers and fax machines. But not everyone is complying.

“The biggest challenge is changing behaviours,” says Ms. Kunz Purser, the student hired by U of Waterloo as a green IT coordinator. Many people refuse to let go of their personal ink-jet printers or to turn off their computers at night, and some departments remain “server hoggers.”

“It’s a cultural thing in our school,” says Rochelle Owen, director of the office of sustainability at Dalhousie University. “It’s about control: I have control over my budget and I get what I want.”

Also, most campuses already have numerous green projects underway, and IT can get lost on the priority list. When Ms. Owen’s office opened in January 2008, green IT was just one of 12 environmental objectives on the agenda, along with building upgrades and better document management to save paper.

It’s not just about end users and their imperfect habits that thwart energy conservation. Technology uses a lot of power because much of the infrastructure behind it was not designed to be eco-friendly. The U of Ottawa’s Dr. Hall, for instance, is trying to figure out how to avoid using coolers on photonic networks. (Optical signals need to be cooled before they meet an electrical signal at a switching box or the frequencies won’t match – it’s the one glitch that makes such networks energy inefficient.)

One of the country’s most ambitious green IT network projects is a $2-million, two-year pilot to create a carbon-neutral Internet. Funded by the GreenStar Network, this project will power a section of the CANARIE high-speed network using wind or solar energy; network nodes will tap into whichever power source is plentiful at any given time.

“If you build a network, it should be at least as efficient and reliable as the current one,” says Montreal’s Dr. Cheriet, who is working out ways to make the network stable enough to be rolled out nationwide.

The idea of tapping into energy where it’s the cheapest and most plentiful is driving a lot of green IT projects. A study by the International Institute for Sustainable Development and funded by the GreenStar Network is assessing whether it’s feasible to relocate servers for three universities to remote locations near renewable energy sources. For instance, if the University of British Columbia stored its servers in a state-of-the-art facility near the Revelstoke Dam, it could get a deal on power whenever the dam has surplus electricity.

Since computer terminals often sit idle, and since many people use only about 10 percent of their PC’s computing power, projects like EcoGrid at the University of Calgary are attempting to use this processing power more efficiently. When you log onto EcoGrid in a computer lab and set your terminal on a data-intensive job, the system hunts around for spare processing space on the network.

“Researchers like it,” says Dave Schultz, systems analyst with the research computing support service in the IT department. He tested the program last year and is now running EcoGrid all over campus. “You can get more work done than you could on just your own work station. Instead of having to run 100 programs one after the other, the network can take output from all 100 at the same time in one run.”

Dozens of other projects looking at such things as the business case for carbon trading in technology and an ISO standard for green IT are in the early stages. Progress is slow, says Mr. St. Arnaud, because of insufficient funding and an absence of government policies to inspire funding, get businesses onside and prepare the country for carbon-trading opportunities. Meanwhile, many projects, particularly those that involve sharing networks or relocating servers, come with privacy and reliability issues.

Yet Canadian universities have advantages. Canada has lots of clean energy, including hydroelectricity, solar and wind power. (Mr. St. Arnaud thinks our chilly North could be a great place for relocating overheated servers.) And there is a research and IT community eager to find creative answers and be first to market them. Intense competition is coming from other research groups in places like California and the U.K., but Montreal’s Dr. Cheriet says it’s a good-natured race because there’s no single solution.

“No one discipline can attack all the problems,” he says. “It’s much more complex than that.”

See how your department can Go Green.

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