Tech's looming battle against rising energy costs

Green is not enough: How IT can (and must) lead the energy-savings charge across the entire enterprise

Reduce energy usage through telework and virtual meetings

According to Skip Laitner, economic analysis director for the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, the most immediate opportunity for reducing energy costs comes from telecommuting. Today, 4 million workers regularly telecommute, saving 840 million gallons of gasoline, he points out, citing a study by the Consumer Electronics Association.

"If we grew that to 40 million telecommuters, we would be saving 8.4 billion gallons of gas," Laitner said. "How big is that? I estimate enough to become equivalent of 500,000 barrels of oil, or about 2.5 percent of current consumption." While such savings clearly reduce employees' out-of-pocket costs for commuting, they also reduce businesses' costs in two areas: electricity and real estate.

Sun Microsystems, for example, reduces its annual energy usage by about 2,500 kilowatt-hours for every day per week that employees work at home -- that's about 500kWh per day an employee is not on the office. With nearly 20,000 employees working at home (56 percent of the workforce) at least one day per week, that translates into significant energy savings for Sun, says Ann Bamesberger, Sun's vice president of Open Work, its decade-old telecommuting program. Sun also needs less space, so it spends less on building leases, she adds.

IT can help companies see where telecommuting has the greatest impact on energy costs, Bamesberger says. "By tracking [employee] badge data, or writing scripts to see if wireless devices are being used, IT can paint a picture of the company's mobility pattern," she says. That analysis may show that a specific building is used only two-thirds of the time, making it a prime candidate for a deliberate telecommuting plan -- and for reconfiguration so less space needs to be leased, heated, and powered. Often, management doesn't realize how much informal telecommuting actually goes on, so it overspends on space and the associated energy costs, she notes.

"The IT function is absolutely critical to facilitating telecommuting, and there is a terrific opportunity for IT functions to be proactive and show the company how they can reduce energy costs," Bamesberger says.

Reducing business travel also helps cut businesses' energy costs, not just its carbon emissions, notes Forrester analyst Mines. It's now possible to replace much travel with videoconferencing, he says, because that technology has come a long way in the last decade. Today's high-definition videoconferencing and telepresence systems create an immersive experience in which participants often quickly forget that they are not in the same room, let alone on the same continent.

Such systems are by no means cheap, often costing several hundred thousand dollars per room. But Mines says that some early adopters pay for those costs just by the savings in avoided airfare, hotel, and car costs. "Companies can break even from a cost perspective, and even realize some measurable gain," he says.

"Moving to videoconferencing or telepresence is an operational policy decision made by business leaders of a firm, but IT is the enabler, and it can do the arithmetic to develop the business case for why this practice will make sense for the business," Mines says.

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Betsy Harter

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