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Green Gaps

"Powering down all desktop computers,locally connected printers and other non-networked peripherals at the end of the day will reduce energy consumption."

This suggestion from Aaron Helton, an Office of Personnel Management staffer, was one of more than 5,300 submissions for the Obama administration's recent Green Gov Challenge. Helton's idea seems elementary, but the need to remind employees to put their PCs in sleep mode at night is a sign that agencies have a ways to go in implementing President Obama's October 2009 executive order on federal sustainability.

Resistance among some feds to embracing green IT stems from a combination of causes: psychological inertia, pesky regulations, lack of information about eco-friendly alternatives and a bargain-shopping procurement culture. The challenge of caring for federal IT is massive--the U.S. government is the world's largest purchaser of electronics, shelling out nearly $75 billion for products and services in 2009 alone, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Today's concept of green IT has two tracks --- eco-efficiency and eco-innovation, according to Richard Hodges, founder and chief executive officer of GreenIT, a Sonoma, Calif., consulting firm. "Eco-efficiency begins with using minimal-impact materials to design and build electronic products and goes all the way to end-of-life disposal, or recycling," he says. It's something agencies can do right now.

Eco-innovation is more ambitious. Here IT is used to enable green approaches in other endeavors, such as transportation, water supply, buildings and telecommuting. While there are some successes, much still has to be worked out. "We have to change the way people think and manage the systems we use," Hodges says.

In 2006, the Environmental Protection Agency updated the IT guidelines in the EnergyStar consumer education program to reflect built-in energy-saving computer options, such as sleep mode and monitor cooling controls, which extend product life.

Green IT strategies are gaining traction among agencies with the help of two vital resources. EPEAT, or electronic product environmental assessment tool managed by the private nonprofit Green Electronics Council, helps procurement officials compare and select computers that curb energy use. And the Federal Electronics Challenge--a joint program of EPA, the White House Office of the Federal Environmental Executive and the Federal Electronics Stewardship Working Group--advises agencies on extending the life span of products and recycling obsolete equipment.

But progress in spreading green practices across government has been hard-fought. A recent survey on federal purchasing conducted by the Government Business Council, the research division of Government Executive, found that the chief obstacle to buying green is a concern that such products are more expensive. But there is debate on whether costs are actually higher when long-term saving savings are factored in. Online responses from 161 federal executives showed that 60 percent said cost is their top priority in purchasing versus a mere 18 percent that ranked sustainability No. 1. Other obstacles were cited as well. A startling 86 percent said they found it easier to switch to sustainable products in their personal lives than in federal management.

Noteworthy for the Office of the Federal Environmental Executive, which is charged with implementing the executive order, is that a majority of respondents said they felt uninformed about which green products and services are available. Four in 10 weren't even familiar with Obama's sustainability order.

A key reason for the unspectacular progress, according to an October 2009 GAO report, is an absence of consequences for agencies that do not meet sustainability goals. Many fail to fully exploit green opportunities and simply issue vague goals for improvement, GAO said. Auditors calculated that if agencies replaced 500,000 desktop and laptop computers and monitors with EPEAT-registered products and operated and disposed of them in accordance with Federal Electronics Challenge guidelines, then energy reductions and cost savings could lead to environmental benefits five to 10 times greater than what exists today.

EPA officials say the chief obstacles are difficulties with installing power management devices on multiple computers simultaneously and ensuring that sleep settings do not interfere with administrative software updates.

But one impediment to greening government desktops runs deeper than environmental awareness, equipment or even costs--it's rooted in office culture. "The big obstacle is behavioral, because you're taking away people's stuff that's not in use," Hodges says. "Sharing printers, for example, saves money but it changes layout and configuration. Agencies must decide whether a printer should be shared by eight people, 16, or 20. One way to save as much as 40 percent on printing costs is to print on two sides of the paper, Hodges adds. The problem? "People don't like it," he says.

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