When a municipality is tasked with reducing operating costs, one often overlooked area is energy use in the IT infrastructure. With energy prices on the rise, an increasingly taxed power grid and growing public concern over efficiency, new technologies and approaches to the way IT operates can lead to a dramatic reduction in monthly utility bills. While energy efficiency can be realized through high-tech means like solar panels or super-efficient air conditioning, such efforts are out of reach for many cities. However, there are three changes to network infrastructure that a municipality of almost any size can implement now to save money.
Increase Workstation Energy Efficiency
Workstations are the first place a municipality should look for energy savings. Think of a workstation as the computer, monitor, and printer that employees use to do their day-to-day work. Here are a few ways you can make sure that newly purchased workstations are energy efficient as possible:
Buy ENERGY STAR Compliant-hardware – Per energystar.gov, ENERGY STAR is “a joint program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy helping us all save money and protect the environment through energy efficient products and practices.” Many electronics – including desktop computers, monitors, and printers – will be labeled with an ENERGY STAR logo, meaning that they meet high standards for energy efficiency. Purchasing ENERGY STAR equipment can noticeably reduce the power consumption of the average desktop and in many cases is no more expensive than standard hardware.
Replace Tube CRT monitors with LCD Flat Screens – Monitors may last longer than the computers that they are attached to, but tube-based CRT monitors (the ones that look like old televisions) can consume a lot more energy and produce more heat than newer LCD flat screen monitors. On average, a CRT monitor uses about 80 watts (~$56/year) whereas an LCD uses around 35 watts (~$24/year). Replacing 100 monitors with LCDs will save almost $3200/year in energy costs alone.  And since LCD’s generate less heat, you’ll save even more money due to reduced cooling costs.
Upgrade Desktops to Thin Clients – While desktop computers have historically been the mainstay for workstations, alternative devices called “thin clients” are changing the landscape. These tiny computers dramatically reduce the size and energy consumption of each workstation by offloading most of the work to a central server. While an average desktop uses between 65-90 watts (up to $63/year) depending on workload, a thin client can uses around 15 watts (~$10/year). Think of thin clients like using central air conditioning instead of putting a separate air conditioner in every office. Because the central server does most of the work, thin clients don’t need hard drives, cooling fans, or CD drives and therefore use much less power. In fact, replacing 100 desktops (at an average of 75 watts) with thin clients could save $4300 a year in energy costs. Also, because of their small form factor and lack of moving parts, thin clients introduce far less heat into the office environment, leading to drastically reduced cooling costs in offices that have numerous workstations.
Reduce the Number of Physical Servers through Virtualization
Virtualization is a technology that has been rapidly gaining popularity throughout the government sector. At its core, virtualization allows multiple physical servers to be combined into one physical server. In some cases, 10 or more servers can be placed onto one physical machine. IT staff is supportive of the technology because it greatly reduces the number of physical servers they have to purchase, maintain and secure. However, another major advantage of virtualization is that by reducing the number of physical servers, the network takes less energy to run and, because there are less servers, the heat output of the server room is greatly reduced, leading to lower cooling costs. In fact, most virtualization vendors say that each server eliminated will save an average of $700/year in energy costs and the figure is even higher when factoring in reduced cooling needs. This technology won’t conserve much energy for municipalities with only a couple of servers, but for larger offices with ten or more servers, the savings can be significant.
Implement Efficient Energy Management Policies
One of the easiest ways to see immediate energy efficiency gains throughout the municipality might not require any capital investment at all: energy management policies. In many offices, workstations and monitors are left running at full power all night after employees go home, leading to a lot of wasted energy and unnecessary cooling costs.
However, processes can be put in place to help curb this unneeded power consumption. Most modern operating systems allow the IT Department to set rules for how workstations behave when they are not being used. After a designated idle period, workstations can enter a low power which turns off most of the functions of the computer without erasing any unsaved data or forcing the user to quit out of programs. It’s like a pause button for a computer and it reduces energy consumption from 65-90 watts in running mode to as low as 6 watts in low power mode. For a network with 100 workstations that are active only 8 hours a day, savings could be $2600/year or more.
In addition, most modern monitors (LCD and CRT) have similar standby modes that turn off the device until it is needed. Note that it is far better to have monitors enter a standby mode than it is to have them on and running a screen saver, even if the screen is blank. If a LCD monitor uses an average of 35 watts when it is on, in standby mode it uses about 3 watts. So 100 monitors that are active 8 hours a day and then put in standby mode could save $1500/year. During working hours, most IT departments set computers to sleep after one hour and monitors after twenty minutes.
Why not just turn the workstations completely off? Turning off computers while not in use is a good idea in theory, but in practice things can be a bit more complex. Many computers automatically download patches and virus updates at night during off hours to minimize the load on the network. If the computer is fully powered off, these important updates will not get installed and could put the environment at risk. This is why low power mode is an overall better choice, as it will still allow software to be automatically updated. However, if the environment is manually patched by IT staff on a set schedule, then a nightly power down procedure could be a possibility and might save even more money. Talk with your IT staff or vendor to find the right mix of processes to meet the needs of your network.
The best part about energy management policies is that they require no additional purchases and are usually quick to implement even in large organizations, representing a great “low-hanging fruit” project that can quickly realize results.
Conclusion – Adding It Up
While reducing energy costs may not seem significant when compared to multimillion dollar road projects or expensive software purchases, it is important to remember that the savings it produces continue to add up hour over hour, year after year. Take our earlier examples and add them up: Replacing 100 workstations with thin clients and LCD’s, used 8 hours a day, and implementing smart energy management practices would save roughly $11,600/year in energy costs alone, not including reduced cooling costs. That’s 5155 gallons of gas (at $2.25 a gallon) for the Police Department, two movie nights at the park for your citizens, or 290 boxes (at $40 a box) of printer paper!
In many cases an energy conservation project can pay for itself after only a few years of operation, especially where a virtualization project eliminates a number of servers from the environment. When factoring how much energy is being saved by such projects, remember to include reduced cooling, maintenance, and time savings costs along with the direct energy consumption savings into the overall equation. With increased public awareness of energy consumption, implementing such projects will also give your municipality a great story to tell citizens about how their tax dollars are being better used to provide needed services instead of paying wasteful energy bills.
 All figures based on US average price of $.08 per kilowatt hour. To adjust for local energy prices, use this equation taken from MAXIMUMpcguides.com: A watts / 1000 = B kilowatts * 24 (hours per day) = D kWh * $.XX (your electricity cost rate per kWh) = E (cost per day) * 365 = F (cost per year).
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