Where Clean Energy and IT Meet

By Derrick Harris

August 20, 2008

I spent yesterday at the National Clean Energy Summit, and I couldn’t help but think of the IT world and how important the push for green IT really is. I also couldn’t help but notice how enterprise computing is a microcosm of the greater energy crisis.

As an immediate step to allay concerns over skyrocketing energy bills and growth-crippling power constraints, the IT industry’s attempts to lower comsumption are a great first step. Less-power-hungry processors are the datacenter equivalent of hybrid vehicles or Energy Star-certified appliances, and in-depth metrics and policy-based power-management software are more than reminiscent of the smart grid technologies that power companies would love to see put in place. Distributed computing projects mirror the vision of Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Commissioner Jon Wellinghoff, who foresees a world where citizens will be able to plug in their cars and sell the excess energy back to the grid for use in peak or emergency situations. We will get paid to charge our cars, he says.

Virtualization, which allows companies to perform multiple tasks with the same amount of power consumption as running a single app, doesn’t seem comparable to anything going on in the outside world. Off the top of my head, I can’t even imagine what an equivalent technology would look like. Virtualization also is what makes cloud computing so appealing from the energy and financial perspectives. The ability to run multi-tenant environments saves providers money, and thus saves users money. And in the end, everyone uses less energy.

Of course, until servers can run without plugging into something, IT energy concerns still will be subject to the whims of our national power grid. Until the federal government and energy companies decide to get serious about clean, renewable energy — the purpose of the summit — datacenters will continue to be affected by rising oil prices and an inadequate infrastructure.

Generation and transmission issues aside (where the upfront money will be invested), everyone seemed to agree that a critical issue will be tax credits, subsidies, unique financing models and other economic strategies designed to encourage the use and generation of clean energy. David Overskei, president of Decision Factors Inc., proposes a rather provocative option: that companies not be taxed on profits derived from the use of sustainable energy. Until renewable energy becomes the norm (which some very influential people seem to think must be the ultimate outcome, and for a wide variety of environmental, economic and geopolitical reasons) would you be willing to power your datacenter with more- expensive wind, solar or geothermal energy sources in return for tax-free profits derived from the datacenter? I think many computing-reliant organizations, especially those making profits via electronic trading, for example, might eagerly hop on board.

Dan Reicher, director for climate change and energy initiatives for Google.org, discussed Google’s interest and investment in one innovative new geothermal technique, a key part of the company’s REgoogle.org/egs or on this YouTube video.

For those concerned with the future of energy, the summit gave a dire-but- optimistic outlook for our energy future. Aside from those already mentioned, presenters touting not only the need to make the change, but also the ways in which it can be done profitably for everyone involved, included, among many others: former president Bill Clinton; New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg; Sen. Harry Reid, D- Nev.; billionaire financier T. Boone Pickens; United Steelworkers Vice President Fred Redmond; Robert Rubin, former Secretary of the Treasury and current chairmanof the executive committe of the board of Citigroup; Steven Chu, Nobel Prize winner and director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; and several western governors.

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