Free money boosts green tech's appeal

Utilities across the country are dangling generous incentives for green IT projects

IT departments might be finding themselves in an unenviable position: On the one hand, they're saddled with a directive from on high to make operations greener, whether for the sake of saving money or cutting carbon emissions or both. On the other hand, said IT departments aren't receiving extra funding to launch any green-tech projects. What's an IT admin to do? Sure, you could unplug all the servers and require end-users to double up on PCs, schemes that would result in a healthy reduction in energy consumption for your organization -- followed swiftly by a decidedly unhealthy reduction in employment opportunities for yourself.

Better yet, you may find that you can secure partial or even full funding for energy-saving technology projects from an unexpected source: your friendly neighborhood utility. An ever-increasing number of energy providers across the country, from Hawaii to New York, have rolled out incentive programs for organizations to deploy various green-technology products, from PC power management to server virtualization and beyond. These programs are certainly enticing; it's effectively free money, after all. But any organization that's considering taking advantage of such a program would be well served to carefully read the fine print to ensure that they receive their rebate, sans any nasty surprises.

[ Learn how the 2009 InfoWorld Green 15 reaped savings through green tech. | Keep abreast of green IT news and tips by subscribing to InfoWorld's free weekly Green Tech newsletter. ]

Pinching PC power pennies

Among the most common technologies for which you can secure rebate dollars is PC-power management (PPM), which remains one of the lowest-hanging fruits in the green IT orchard. Adoption is on the rise; a newly released survey of IT professionals conducted by Forrester found that more than 90 percent of companies are implementing or considering the technology.

PC-power management technology is designed to automatically power down computers and monitors when they're not in use (such as after hours and on weekends). Computers can be automatically roused, say, 10 minutes before end-users are scheduled to arrive at the office. Some PPM offerings can also wake up machines for routine patches and backups, then power the systems back down again. Vendors in the PC power-management space include Faronics, Verdiem, BigFix, 1E, and KACE.

Potential savings from PC power management can be enticing. Results vary depending on factors such as what desktop equipment users have (laptops vs. workstations with monitors), how much time users spend on their machines, and the cost of energy in your region. But savings can range from $25 to $75 and up per year per machine, and around 200 kWh to 400 kWh per computer per year.

[ Learn more about the ROI of PC power management. ]

Given the easily measurable and quickly achievable ROI of PPM, one might wonder why more companies aren't adopting it and why utilities need to dangle incentives. According to a recent report on PC power management incentives [PDF] by J. Walker Beacon of Beacon Consultants Network, the reasons are twofold: For some cash-strapped organizations, the upfront costs, no matter how modest, are simply too steep. "In other organizations," according to Beacon, "the answer has to do with who bears the costs of a computer power management project (e.g., the IT department) versus who reaps the benefits (e.g., the facility department)."

Hence the need for incentives, which range dramatically from region to region and utility to utility. On the low end of the spectrum, BC Hydro offers customers an incentive of $6 per computer; Seattle City Light [PDF] offers $8 per system. Utilities such as Idaho Power [PDF] and Bonneville Power Administration offer $10 per machine, while at the high end of the spectrum, San Diego Gas and Electric, Southern California Edison, and Pacific Gas and Electric offer $15 per computer. Austin Energy and New England's Northeast Utilities will provide companies with up to 50 percent of the total installed costs -- and Manitoba Hydro is willing to pony up as much as 100 percent of the total installed cost.

In addition to utility companies, organizations such as the New York State Energy Research & Development Authority (NYSERDA) and Wisconsin Focus on Energy will dole out money to organizations for rolling out PPM technology.

These incentive programs do have requirements. Your organization typically will need to deploy a commercial software solution capable of centrally managing the power settings of networked computers and producing aggregate savings reports. Your utility may require access to your site for spot-checks to ensure you've implemented the technology. Additionally, some utilities require a minimum average savings. For example, Avista, based in Spokane, Wash., requires annual savings of at least 120 kWh per machine.

Secure server savings

Server virtualization has proven itself a power-saving technology, effectively equipping IT shops to substantially reduce their server count. Recognizing the technology's ability to ease the strain on the electrical grid, utilities are handing over cash to companies that virtualize. Among them is Energy Trust of Oregon, which offers $350 per consolidated server (with a minimum of 10). Austin Energy will provide a rebate of up to $200,000 [PDF] for a virtualization project.

As with the PPM projects, there are caveats to the server virtualization incentive programs. Typically, you'll need to provide pre- and post-project energy consumption and grant an on-site inspection. You may also need to submit your rebate application before you implement your virtualization project. Your project might not be eligible if it's part of a new datacenter construction project. Additionally, a utility might restrict you from reusing removed equipment down the road, requiring you to detail the disposal method of your removed machines. In other words, no temporarily unplugging machines, only to plug them back in later when your computing demands increase.

Rebate programs for green-tech projects don't end with PC power management and server virtualization. You might be pleasantly surprised to discover other opportunities to reap rebates for energy-saving endeavors in your office or datacenter. For example, utilities such as PG&E offer incentives for adopting energy-efficient storage technologies such as MAID and thin provisioning. Through the Efficiency Vermont Incentive Program, "customers may receive incentives or rebates for studies or assessments that result in operational energy savings," according to IBM [PDF]. The report also notes, "A datacenter thermal assessment that results in reduced cooling costs through air flow and delivery optimization could be eligible for an incentive or rebate of some or all of the study cost."

The best advice I can give in regard to green-tech rebate programs is this: Before you do anything that will reduce your company's energy consumption, speak to your utility. You may need to invest some extra time talking on the phone, taking measurements, reading the fine print, and filling out paperwork. But surely that's worth the prospect of reporting to the CEO how you snagged thousands -- if not tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands -- of dollars in free money.

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