Information technology and sustainability

Federal agencies trying to meet tougher sustainability mandates can make significant progress toward their goals by taking advantage of more efficient data storage and other information and communication technologies.

At the NextGov Prime 2013 conference, Scott Renda of the White House Office of Management and Budget and I outlined some of the ways these technologies can lead toward a greener government that saves energy – and money.

Scott, who leads OMB’s efforts on data center consolidation, kicked off our session on “The Power of Sustainable IT.” He put to rest a number of myths about the data center consolidation initiative, which mandates that federal agencies significantly reduce the number of such facilities. For example, he said increases in the number of centers over time are not because new centers are being constructed but due to more accurate inventories of existing centers. He outlined how the data center consolidation initiative has evolved from treating all centers alike and targeting closures, to looking more at optimizing large core centers and reducing by 40 percent the smaller non-core centers. In addition, OMB is now taking a more comprehensive approach to reviewing each agency’s IT portfolio through a new tool called PortfolioStat.

Following Scott’s presentation, I talked about how “greening the government” has taken on far more prominence under the Obama Administration, which has issued a number of executive mandates setting more challenging sustainability goals. Federal agencies have an overall goal of reducing their direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions 24 percent below 2008 levels by 2020.

Federal agencies faced with declining budgets are looking to use information and communication technologies to help them achieve these sustainability goals with reduced costs.

Last year, C2ES completed a series of case studies showing how federal agencies are shrinking their energy use and carbon footprint by using sensors and controls to reduce energy use in buildings, GPS-based systems to improve vehicle fleet management, and tools such as teleworking and teleconferencing to reduce business and training travel. In one case study we found that the General Services Administration estimated that switching to a cloud-based service from an outdated email system would reduce operational costs by 50 percent and save the agency $15.2 million over the next five years. Part of this savings will come from an 85 percent decline in energy use and from dramatically reducing the number of GSA servers supporting the system.

Overall, our analysis determined that, if widely implemented, information and communication technologies could help agencies meet half of their goals for cutting greenhouse gas emissions and save more than $5 billion in energy costs through 2020.