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Top 12 Green-IT Users: No. 5 Snohomish Public Utility District

By Jennifer McAdams
February 15, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - A succession of sweltering days gripping the Pacific Northwest in the summer of 2006 threatened to leave the Snohomish County Public Utility District (PUD) in Everett, Wash., without enough power to meet the demands of area residents. This near-miss crystallized the need to find new ways to cut energy consumption.

Even before the heat wave, officials at the Snohomish PUD were weighing initiatives to save money and power because local population figures were skyrocketing. But early into their efforts, the officials realized that just as important as the utility's environmental conservation efforts was the need to set an example for the community.

Over the past 18 months, the PUD has instated a broad range of power management initiatives. For instance, the utility now puts its more than 1,000 desktops to sleep when they become inactive, using customized software originally developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Also under way are changes in the physical setup of PUD data centers and the IT equipment housed in those facilities.

Officials also emphasize the strength of the utility's public awareness campaign. It's reaching out to school districts and area businesses, such as aerospace giant The Boeing Co., to hammer home the importance of conservation. "Our customers want a utility that is thinking about the big picture and about the future," says Steve Klein, the PUD's general manager. With the big picture in mind, the PUD cleaned its own house first with tactical steps to reduce energy use. Desktop operations quickly emerged as the area most likely to yield the highest savings.

"After we worked with Hewlett-Packard to replace some of our equipment, which was consuming far too much energy, we moved on to something that promised to have even bigger savings," recalls Kevin Lanum, the PUD's infrastructure systems analyst.

In that next phase, the IT staff decided to use an open-source tool called EZ GPO (Group Policy Objects) to shut down computers when they're not in use. Developed by the EPA, EZ GPO provides a way to control power management settings using resident APIs.

IT officials used EZ GPO in a pilot test that ran from July to October 2007 to determine how much energy the PUD would save if PCs stopped running after employees had left for the day. The EPA's free software worked well on some PUD equipment. Still, applications installed on many of the computers would override EZ GPO's attempts to put them to sleep, even though the devices weren't in use.

More Info

Chris Thorpe, PUD General Manager, Steve Klein, Martha Hobson and Kevin Lanum

Location: Everett, WA
Website: www.snopud.com
What's special: Puts its more than 1,000 desktops to sleep when they become inactive, through the use of customized software originally developed by the EPA.
What's cheap: Developed a public awareness campaign to reduce power consumption at local school districts and area businesses.

"We devised an additional scripted solution that runs scheduled tasks every half-hour and checks to see if anyone has logged into computers. If the computers are idle, they are put into standby mode," says Steve Reynolds, a developer at The Cadmus Group Inc., a Watertown, Mass.-based firm that worked on the PUD's conservation efforts.

The IT staff combined changes to Windows Task Scheduler, Visual Basic Scripting and a free utility from Microsoft called PS Shutdown.exe to attain substantial savings documented over the three-month pilot. During that time, average workstation wattage dropped from 67.5 to 20.2 watts. In total, the PUD projected savings of 414.9 watts per PC per year, which would yield a cost savings of $25 per machine.

The utility is also changing its data centers. "We are planning a mass migration in 2008, when we will consolidate 12 racks of servers down to three blade servers. Along the way, we will replace our air handlers and reduce the overall size of our data centers," says Chris Thorpe, senior manager of ITS operations.

The PUD's efforts are far from the norm, attests Christopher Mines, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. "There is a series of disconnects that are prevalent in large corporations between IT that uses the energy and the facilities that purchase, manage and pay for it," he says. "We need a much more concerted push by all of these parties to identify, assess and then initiate efforts to reduce energy consumption."

McAdams is a freelance writer in Vienna, Va. Contact her at JMTechWriter@aol.com.

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