Climate Corps: A Little Information Goes a Long Way

[Editor's note: This blog is part of a series from the 2009 Climate Corps fellows. The program, from partners Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and Net Impact, pairs MBA students with companies to identify energy efficiency opportunities and develop actionable strategies that help host companies reduce costs, energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.]  

A little information goes a long way.

As cliché as it sounds, I have always known this to be true, both as an individual and on a larger group level.  For instance, when my GPS tells me I will reach my destination in 29 minutes, I take it as a personal challenge to make it in 25 minutes, and sometimes even wonder if I could do it in 22.

My Subaru reports my average miles per gallon (MPG) used on a trip; on the next trip, I try to go a little slower or faster and evaluate how that affects my MPG. If I did not know how long the trip was supposed to take or what my trip’s MPG was, however, I wouldn't be challenged in the same way.  

It's the information that makes the difference in changing one’s behavior.  

Cisco is taking this idea to the operational level.  When I began my summer at the company as a Climate Corps Fellow just over a month ago, I continued work on a project started by my predecessor Emily Reyna that involves installing Power Distribution Units (PDUs) on racks in data labs. It is estimated the initiative will have an 18-month payback and save Cisco roughly $8 million per year while reducing the company's greenhouse gas emissions by 3 percent.

PDUs act as a smart power strip.  Anything plugged into a PDU will have its energy usage monitored, often multiple times a second. PDUs don’t save energy themselves; rather, they provide users with consumption and energy load information and prompt questions: When is the equipment on? How much power is it drawing? What is the temperature, humidity, etc?

These types of questions help users identify opportunities to improve efficiencies. Allowing a user to see when a piece of equipment is actually being used -- even from a remote location away from the lab -- enables them to turn it off when it is not needed. A lab administrator may even choose to retire a piece of equipment if it isn’t used frequently enough.

The real potential for PDUs to save energy rests with each individual lab user, not with the equipment itself. Individuals -- when provided with enough information -- can find personal motivation to reduce energy consumption and save money.

Some groups have even gone so far as to set up tracking systems among employees. There’s no better incentive than seeing a co-worker save more energy than you are to get your competitive juices flowing.

Want to try it for yourself?  Individuals at home or in the workplace can use small gadgets like the Kill A Watt to monitor the energy consumption of electrical appliances, which can also help small businesses forecast energy costs.

Sarah Shapiro, a 2009 Climate Corps fellow and Net Impact member, is pursuing a Masters of Business Administration/Master of Science degree at the University of Michigan. This content is cross-posted on EDF’s Innovation Exchange blog.