The politics of IT power

The disinterest may be because IT, with its ability to cut business travel and paper consumption (thanks largely to email), is often perceived as a means of reducing carbon emissions. Alternatively, it may be because, compared to the energy consumed in manufacturing, data centre energy appetites have been relatively small.

Perhaps the real reason, though, is that such groups have simply not noticed what has been happening in the past two years. As Chris Miller of the data centre consultancy Future-Tech notes, data centres – where most IT power use is concentrated – have simply escaped attention because they are low profile: “It’s niche,” he says, “Who knows about data centres?”

But that is surely about to change. According to analysts at Forrester Research, an average sized data centre uses enough electricity to heat a small city – and although no one is likely to advocate their dismantling, some kind of regulation is inevitable. “The data centre [power issue] is just appearing on the energy radar,” says Miller.

Some form of regulation on corporate power use was clearly signalled in the UK government’s white paper on energy, released in July. “There is wide potential to make cost-effective energy savings in many businesses and public services not covered by the [European] Emissions Trading Scheme [ETS]… we will bring forward proposals to incentivise making those savings. We shall consult on a proposal for a mandatory emissions trading scheme…”

One thing is clear: IT is going to be right in the firing line. In many sectors – financial services being the obvious example – IT use, whether in the data centre or on the desktop, accounts for more of the company’s power use than anything else.

At present, regulation on energy use is light with most of the pressure felt by microprocessor and systems manufacturers. For the time being, the fast-rising price of energy is regarded as the best mechanism for controlling consumption. But for some industries – again, financial services is often cited – the price of power is a minor consideration compared to other factors such as the availability of data centre space and pressures to bring new services to market.

Even so, no government will leave that entirely to the market. In the UK, at present, the ETS, which is intended to help national governments meet their Kyoto Treaty obligations, only applies to big, smokestack industries.

On a smaller scale, the voluntary UK Climate Change Levy is a method of claiming national insurance rebates on energy usage. But to date, this has only 6,000 participants. In addition, local authorities can apply quite stringent rules to energy use and energy sourcing when planning applications are being made. That is likely to have a significant impact in London, for example, where the proposed energy plan stipulates at least 10% of power used by businesses should come from renewable sources. As the head of business development at an IT hosting company observes, that alone will halt many plans for building data centres in the capital.

But importantly, says Stuart Clenaghan, a director at Carbon Capital, which advises on how to manage financial liabilities in this area, many businesses are choosing to voluntarily reduce their carbon footprint or even become “carbon neutral”. One way they can do this is by investing in schemes, such as forestation, that can “neutralise” their carbon emissions.

In December 2004, HSBC became the first big company to commit to becoming carbon neutral. The financial services giant’s policy involves reducing emissions, sourcing from green energy suppliers and offsetting emissions. Other companies pursuing a similar path include NEC, Ricoh, Sun, Swiss Re, Norwich Union and the Peterborough Building Society.

Meanwhile, the Carbon Trust, an advisory body funded by the UK government, is already on IT’s case, highlighting how computers contribute significantly to energy use, even in small and mid-sized companies. That is just the start of the pressure that is likely to start influencing the IT strategies of companies of all sizes.

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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