Is IT Failing the Energy Efficiency Imperative?

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Isn’t Information Technology (IT) already ultra-efficient? How much more efficient can it get? Well, turns out that there are still huge energy savings opportunities with IT.  Today, less than 10% of the energy that goes into a typical data center is spent for useful work.  Manufacturers tout the ever-increasing efficiency of their products, every new generation of PC and server is marketed as delivering more transactions per Watt than the products they replace. Yet, as pointed out in a recently published whitepaper by Mark Aggar of Microsoft entitled The IT Energy Efficiency Imperative, the many improvements in energy efficiency of IT have failed to resolve some of its largest inefficiencies. Consider the following:

  • Average server utilization remains at historically low levels, between 5% to 15% according to the recent studies referenced by Aggar. This is akin to running a fleet of airplanes with less than 15% of the seats filled on average;
  • Many organizations waste as much as 75% of the electricity consumed by desktop PCs, largely due to leaving computers on overnight and during weekends;
  • Only 25% of IT departments have a plan for optimizing IT resource use, increasing energy efficiency, and minimizing the waste generated by their IT operations.

NRDC welcomes Microsoft’s candid and thought provoking contribution to this debate. Energy inefficiency of IT is a significant concern and key focus area at NRDC: the number of desktop computers, notebooks, tablets, and data centers that power the internet is growing fast and so is their aggregate energy use. Computers and data centers together are already responsible for approximately 4% of US electricity use today[1]. If this does not seem like very much, consider that IT is one of the fastest growing energy uses in the US. This means that while some economic sectors may use more electricity than IT today, IT has a bigger responsibility than most industries in the need to build new power plants, in part to accommodate the growing power needs of new data centers and the myriad other IT and electronics devices.

This wouldn’t be so bad if that power was used efficiently, but unfortunately most of it is currently wasted: if you add up the energy losses in power distribution and cooling, IT hardware and server under-utilization, less than 10% of the energy that goes into typical data centers is spent for useful work[2]. No, this is not a typo, it means that over 90% of the energy is wasted at some stage in the data center "energy value chain". 

Desktop computers provide another example of a large amount of energy waste: a typical desktop computer uses as much energy annually as 20 tablet computers (such as iPads). Granted, desktops deliver higher performance and have larger screens but that certainly does not justify a 2,000 percent difference! Most of the difference highlights the inefficiencies in today’s desktop computers relative to ultra-efficient, mobility-optimized tablets. And this does not even account for the fact that 75% of the annual energy used by typical desktops in the US is consumed when no one is in front of the screen, as they do not auto-power down after extended periods of user inactivity. Manufacturers are motivated to design mobile devices so that they are efficient in performing the required tasks and smoothly go into a very low power mode when not being actively used.  If all devices were battery operated, this problem would solve itself in no time!

Back to reality, this level of energy waste is unacceptable when electricity generation remains one of the largest sources of air pollution, leading to unsafe levels of mercury and other pollutants in our air and water, as well as accelerating dangerous climate change.

Why is IT so inefficient, despite the IT industry’s relentless technological innovation? 

The first problem is the insufficient deployment of best-available technology: ultra-efficient data centers exist and are being demonstrated proudly by environmental leaders among data center operators. However many data centers continue to operate in the same old way, without implementing the energy efficient and money saving solutions available to them. This is true for data centers of all sizes, but particularly so for smaller data centers, server rooms and closets which are responsible for approximately half of the energy use of servers in the US, and typically have lower levels of adoption of IT efficiency best-practices.

As described by Aggar, this is due to systemic failures in the IT business model, which limit the broad adoption of efficiency solutions and practices despite the fact that they are highly cost-effective and provide a slew of other benefits such as better availability, performance, productivity and time to market. These failures include the over-provisioning of IT resources, misaligned incentives between company functions who are responsible for saving energy and those who can implement the solutions, and a general lack of awareness amongst small server room operators who often do not realize how much energy their server rooms  use, or do not make their improvement a priority. Aggar’s whitepaper does a great job at raising awareness and outlining the key strategies, principles and practices that organizations can adopt to make more efficient and cost-effective use of their IT infrastructure. 

The second problem lies with technology itself: in some areas such as consumer desktop PCs, the market puts limited value on energy efficiency, resulting in weak incentives for manufacturers and their suppliers to focus their innovation on energy efficiency. Giving the industry stronger incentives would unleash a wave of innovation that could dramatically reduce the energy use of PCs and lower their lifetime ownership cost, without impacting their performance.

This is where energy efficiency standards come into play: when markets do not adequately value energy efficiency, mandatory standards set efficiency requirements and let manufacturers compete to find the most cost-effective solutions to meet these standards. Standards represent society’s interests when markets are focused purely on purchase price and fail to value lifetime costs and societal benefits. After all it’s you the user who pays the electric bill, not the computer manufacturer.

In summary, here’s what you can do to help reduce energy waste in IT, save money and increase your productivity:

  • As an IT user, in your home and office, choose energy efficient products such as those with the Energy Star label, and use their auto-sleep capabilities
  • If you’re a business owner or executive: make IT efficiency a priority in your business
  • IT industry designers and decision-makers: focus your R&D investments on solving the big unsolved energy efficiency issues of your industry such as PC energy use and server under-utilization, and support ambitious efficiency standards
  • Lastly, policy makers and regulators need to implement policies that help the markets work better relative to energy efficiency: remove barriers to the implementation of cost-effective energy savings, set efficiency standards for appliances, and incentivize utilities to procure all cost-effective energy efficiency before increasing the supply of energy.


[1] Approximately 2% for data centers per EPA's 2007 “Improved Operations” scenario, and another 2% for personal computers and displays per NRDC estimates.

[2] Assuming losses of 50% in facilities, 30% in hardware, and 70% in under-utilization.