IT Plug Loads: The Next Frontier For Energy Savings

By Kent Dunn

In today’s business climate, operational efficiency is key. Organizations are continually looking to be more efficient across all areas of their business as they strive to maximize profitability and, where possible, to simultaneously garner a wide range of ancillary benefits, which often includes improvements in energy efficiency and sustainability. To that end, commercial facilities have long been a target of operational efficiency, and energy management is a big part of that endeavor.plug loads

In most buildings, heating, cooling and lighting account for around 75% of energy usage(1), which has made those systems an obvious target for efficiency improvements. Consequently, facility owners and managers have already made significant investments in technology to manage these large, power hungry systems. And while the savings from these investments roll in, facility executives are faced with a simple question: what’s next? For new opportunities, facilities should turn their sights towards the New Frontier and begin tackling the remaining 25%.

What Is The New Frontier?
The New Frontier, for lack of a better definition, is everything that is left after heating, lighting, cooling, and building envelope have been taken into account. And for the most part, what’s left falls into the dreaded category of “plug loads”—historically the most unmeasurable and unmanageable portion of a building’s energy consumption. Vending machines, coffee makers, IT equipment, printers, microwaves… there’s more than one might think, and it is the fastest growing source of energy load in U.S. commercial buildings according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (see chart). But viable solutions in this area have been elusive, making the questions of “what do you do about it?” and “where do you start?” very daunting ones indeed.

plug loads

The good news is that the biggest chunk of plug load, accounting for more than 30% of the New Frontier, are computers and monitors(2)… which happen to be devices that are both measurable and manageable. When you consider that almost every person in an organization has at least one PC, and further that each PC is needlessly wasting an average of $20 to $50 per year in energy consumption, it’s easy to envision the scope of the problem—and the opportunity.

And additional good news, if you choose to look at it opportunistically, is that while these currently unmanaged devices are consuming way too much energy (and money), they are also creating significant concern and worry for your IT counterparts. IT managers are responsible for keeping these systems secure, available, and up to date, and having machines in the wrong power state at the wrong time can make those responsibilities an extremely difficult task. This unlikely combination of energy waste and IT pain presents an operational efficiency opportunity that can save a significant amount of money while driving energy and IT optimization efficiencies.

PC Fleets: How Can We Make Them More Efficient?
Building management systems automate how and when a space is heated or cooled based on occupancy, and similarly ensure that lights come on when people need them. But they also ensure that the lights stay off and that HVAC settings are adjusted accordingly when people aren’t around to need them. These automated systems are virtually ubiquitous now in commercial buildings. They do their job silently and predictably, and we as occupants and users of the building don’t give it a second thought. It is the expected norm.

Enterprise class PC power management software brings this type of expected norm to large, distributed PC fleets, managing power settings without impact to end-users. This type of software provides IT managers the ability to centrally (and flexibly) determine how and when PCs should shift into low power states in periods of non-use. And even more importantly, it gives them the ability to centrally wake PCs up so that patch maintenance and software rollouts can occur in a more efficient, predictable fashion. It is this combination of functionality that makes IT management and energy management mutually compatible, and sets the table for a big win-win scenario.

The New Frontier Is Here
I’ve been at working at the intersection of the IT and energy efficiency sectors since 2001, and as you would expect I’ve seen a lot of changes in the market during that time. Since then, for instance, PCs have become more efficient, but have also become more powerful (see Moore’s Law).

And despite the ongoing drumbeat of “The Death of the PC”, commercial PC populations have continued to grow at modest rates year over year, meaning that more PCs are in use today than at any time in the past. And that doesn’t include tablets, phones, and other types of mobile devices, which most of us now use in addition to our traditional computers. These market changes confound what was already a vexing energy problem as it relates to IT devices, and they continue to present facility and IT managers with an ever increasing array of non-energy issues. PC power management software won’t solve all of those problems, but it can certainly take a big bite out of them.

1 Energy Star: “Fast Facts on Energy Use”; Gartner, DataQuest: Forecast of IT hardware energy consumption, worldwide, 2005-2012

2 Energy Star: “Fast Facts on Energy Use”; Gartner, DataQuest: Forecast of IT hardware energy consumption, worldwide, 2005-2012

Dunn is the director of the Verdiem product line at Aptean.