Understanding green IT and data center energy-efficiency regulations

With many green IT and data center energy-efficiency regulations already in place and more on the way, it's important to understand these policies and their effects on your business. In this tip, learn about current and pending IT environmental legislation, from energy efficiency to e-waste, how to ensure your data center's compliance and the penalties you could face for ignoring regulations.

There's nothing like a compelling event to get an organization's attention and get it moving.

A few companies implode, and Congress creates the Sarbanes Oxley Act. A company loses a few million employee or client records that include financial or personal information and, amazingly, executives are motivated to finally take action to improve IT system and process security.

Green IT -- that wonderfully overused term -- has a number of its own compelling regulations with potential financial penalties for those who wait or ignore deadlines. The difference with green IT regulations, however, is that complying with them really is the right thing to do.

Executive Order 13423 and energy-efficiency legislation
Executive Order 13423 (E.O.), "Strengthening Federal Environmental, Energy, and Transportation Management," which was signed into law January 2007 by former President Bush, requires that all federal agencies set an energy-efficiency and environmental performance example to achieve a number of sustainability goals with target deadlines. To deliver these targets, IT companies will have to change their current product and offering set or create new products and offerings if they intend to supply government agencies. When suppliers create new energy-efficient products and solutions for government agencies to meet the E.O. goals, those products are made available to commercial customers as well. .As a result, the suppliers' commercial customers benefit, which fulfills the ultimate goal of the E.O.

While the E.O. does not establish non-compliance penalties, other agencies, a number of states and at least one city -- New York City -- have enacted legislation that fines companies that violate these new laws.

The New York Times recently reported that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) may establish carbon dioxide as a "dangerous pollutant" and move to regulate it under the Clean Air Act. But how does this impact IT and data centers? Under the Clean Air Act, any source emitting more than 250 tons of a pollutant would be forced to follow certain regulations and potentially be exposed to significant financial penalties.

A recent detailed analysis of corporate desktop environments performed by Virtera, a professional services firm that focuses on virtualization and green IT issues, demonstrated that as few as 965 traditional desktops can consume power equivalent to the generation of 250 tons of carbon in one year. This analysis was performed for clients who use the Virtera desktop financial model to identify both types of "eco" IT benefits. The model shows how to improve ecological and economical performance in both desktop and data center IT environments. This does not include data center servers but focuses only on the workstation and monitors used by office workers. It is not clear who would be responsible for carbon dioxide generation -- the corporate power consumer or the power generation facility. One thing is certain: Ultimately, the costs will be passed on to the business. If electric utilities are charged for carbon dioxide production, they are either going to pass those charges on to their customers or increase overall electric utility rates. A business that is diligently working to reduce green house gasses and energy use would certainly have an argument against these charges or higher rates.

Carbon dioxide production is only one aspect of data center operations impacted by recent and pending legislation. The disposal of all things electronic is now under strict scrutiny by state and federal regulations -- as they should be, considering that a standard CRT-based monitor contains upwards of five to seven pounds of lead, none of which should end up in a landfill.

Existing green IT laws and those on the horizon
According to e-takeback.org, 19 states already have e-waste legislation in place, with nine additional states expected to pass legislation this year. Only California has been collecting Electronic Waste Recycling Fees from consumers since 2005. New York was the first to pass a mandatory producer responsibility and electronic waste ordinance. Certainly other municipalities are closely monitoring New York's management of electronic equipment disposal.

Starting July 1, 2010, New York City's Local Law 13 (2008) will prohibit disposal of any electronic devices in the trash. New York City had to act, since less than 10% of the city's electronic waste is currently recycled. The result is that "70% of heavy metals contained in NY's landfills -- including lead, mercury and cadmium -- originate from electronic waste." (Corporate IT is a major culprit.)

Under the recent law, New York City mandated that electronics manufactures submit waste management plans by the end of 2008, requiring manufactures to accept customers' electronic equipment for disposal. For some groups -- individuals, nonprofits and small business with under 50 employees -- the manufactures cannot charge a fee for this service.

The penalties are severe for violators. For companies, the fines are $100 for each violation, which could mean for each item disposed of. For manufacturers, the fines are $1,000 for each violation and $1,000 for every day without a disposal plan. $10,000 fines are imposed if there are omissions or misleading information in annual reports. Manufacturers can also be fined $2,000 for each item they refuse to accept for disposal.

In 2003, on a daily average, the U.S. retired 425,000 cell phones and discarded 133,000 computers. Strong e-waste legislation is inevitable, and once enacted will impact every business sector. Most likely, violators will face high fines.

Adhering to environmental regulations in your data center
All businesses should investigate existing and pending environmental legislation that will affect their organization. These rules will not be simple to follow -- the processes and procedures, along with supporting vendor relationships, will be time consuming. But organizations may be held accountable if their assets inappropriately end up in landfill through the negligence of a hired contractor, as was the case of a recently publicized electronics recycling firm that was illegally shipping CRTs to China.

Part of the solution to adhering to environmental regulations is in the manufacturing process and, when possible, the selection of more environmentally friendly products. Adding disposal costs, the cost of legal compliance and purchasing with end-of-life considerations will be the most obvious cost-effective decision for organizations. The Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool, better known as EPEAT, identifies responsible electronic component and manufacturing of electronic devices. Organizations can use EPEAT conformance as a guideline to help demonstrate and follow IT sustainability initiatives through responsible procurement practices.

Furthermore, the responsible, insightful CIO, CTO or other senior IT executive could create a green IT Program Management Office (PMO) and establish, as part of their charter, the identification and tracking of e-waste legislation. For all the covering laws, procedures must be defined along with a measurements process to mitigate non-compliance exposure. In other words, ignorance is not acceptable. The PMO needs to identify which regulations apply to the business and IT operations and then create plans to comply with them and mitigate exposure to fines and fees. Only those activities that are measured can be managed and tracked. Create a means to collect performance data on power consumption and e-waste disposal, design a tracking process and improvement procedures, and follow per results monthly. A representative from the company's in-house counsel should be actively involved in the green IT PMO.

Better still, integrating the green IT initiative with the corporate sustainability program will help organizations generate a broader awareness of various legal exposures.

While there are certainly many business challenges imposed by new environmental legislation, those focusing on the manufacturing and disposal of electronic equipment result in a direct positive effect on our environment as well as lower corporate expenses. After all, the water system protected by a company's e-waste recycling policy might be yours.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Lucian Lipinsky de Orlov is Director of Business Strategy for VIRTERA, an independent IT professional services and consulting firm that delivers virtualization technologies and services to companies across the U.S. VIRTERA's proven vSpectrum consulting method helps clients in the successful and rapid adoption of virtualization and green IT technologies while delivering optimum ROI. For additional information on how to reduce power consumption and costs in a virtual environment, please visit http://www.virteratech.com/index.php/site/solutions_overview.

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