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Why IBM obsesses over energy efficiency

Plus, perspective on why the cloud software giant doesn’t use unbundled renewable energy certificates.

If you think your organization has done all it can to cut back its power consumption, think again. IBM has had a formal energy conservation program in place for almost 45 years, and it’s still finding many ways annually to squeeze its electricity usage.

During 2017 alone, the $36.5 billion cloud computing and technology services company completed more than 2,000 projects to that end — everything from installing systems that match building lighting and heating ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) loads to occupancy schedules to completely a new wave of data center efficiency upgrades.

Those projects were spread across 500 locations around the world, said Wayne Balta, vice president of corporate environmental affairs and product safety for IBM. For context, IBM has completed roughly the same number of upgrades, retrofits and updates annually for the past two to three years, he estimated. "Some of these projects are very substantial; others are more modest," Balta told GreenBiz.

Going forward, that pace might be difficult to maintain, but the company’s team of more than 50 energy management professionals is always hunting for new opportunities. That includes setting minimum expectations for HVAC systems, building management systems, data centers and IT operations, cafeterias and central utility plants.

When it comes to climate change, if you’re the atmosphere, there’s only one thing you care about, and it’s reducing emissions.
Overall, conservation projects undertaken during 2017 reduced IBM’s overall energy consumption by 4.2 percent, or an estimated 143,00 megawatt-hours of electricity and 105,000 million British thermal units of fuel oil and natural gas, according to IBM’s latest report on its environment programs.

That translates into a financial savings of $16.1 million on energy expenses, IBM estimated.

From 1990 and 2017, the company conserved 7.4 million MWh of electricity, which helped it avoid 4.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions. It saved $616 million along the way.

Little left to chance

Any location that uses more than 2,000 MWhs of electricity is required to keep close tabs on consumption, report on how it performs against a series of best-practices checklists, and come up with a strategic plan for closing gaps at least once every four years. That information is recorded in a performance management system that offers shared insights.

"The analyses from these databases enable monthly metrics reporting to management and the identification of opportunities for improvement," IBM’s sustainability team writes in its report. "The continuous review of energy use and conservation performance has facilitated attainment of the strong results noted above."

As you might expect from an internet and cloud services company, a big chunk of IBM’s energy efficiency improvements last year came from optimization work within its data centers. For example, by consolidating computer servers and by using software virtualization technology to get more out of the systems it kept, it cut 90,000 MWh annually and saved $9.6 million.

The company is also eating its own dog food, so to speak, by installing its Smarter Buildings technology, which enables managers to collect and analyze consumption more thoroughly as part of a cloud software application. In 2017, IBM added this system to 72 more locations; it has now been installed across 24 "major" campuses, representing a total of 227 buildings.

Other more "low tech" solutions related to design saved 20,000 MWh related to cooling equipment and systems at 89 data center locations, according to the report. That included installing blanking panels that better control the air flow between racks of servers, investing in more cold-aisle containment systems and checking under raised floors to ensure that errant cables aren’t blocking cold air. IBM also shut down 140 computer room air conditioning (CRAC) units by raising the ambient temperature by approximately 2.5 degrees Celsius. "All of these things can change the efficiency question dramatically," Balta said.

A strict, specific view of what constitutes renewable energy

Like most big tech companies, IBM is on the hunt for more renewable electricity sources that can serve its power needs. Last year, it contracted to purchase about 779,000 MWh produced by a diverse range of generation sources — including wind, biomass, solar and small and large hydro plants. That translates into just under 23 percent of its total needs, which beats the company’s goal of reaching 20 percent by 2020.

IBM does not count unbundled renewable energy certificates (RECs) against that total, because it "obfuscates the need for hard public policy decisions and investments across the energy value chain that must be made to genuinely increase the quantity and availability of renewable electricity delivered to the grid," IBM’s team noted.

Balta’s view is that IBM should strive wherever possible to directly consume the renewable electricity it buys. For that reason, the energy team prioritizes sourcing renewable electricity from "accessible sources," with Europe and Latin America leading the way with the highest percentage of renewable electricity from contracted and grid-supplied sources. 

The company does factor bundled RECs in its renewable electricity metrics. It uses them to account for times when its facilities require more power than what is being delivered by solar or wind generating sources. "Our intent is to procure renewable electricity and its zero-emissions attributes from the grid regions in which our facilities operate, either by directly matching our physical consumption or using bundled RECs to offset emissions," IBM notes in its comprehensive discussion of this topic.

While IBM is considering a new renewable electricity target — and it "would certainly like to be able to power our operations with 100 percent renewable electricity" — you shouldn’t expect to see it declare that commitment in the foreseeable future.

IBM is unique in its position of counting hydro power as renewable. The company explains that position in its report: "We report all of our contracted renewable electricity purchases – whether from new or existing generation sources, 'additional' or otherwise, without discriminating against large hydro installations — and their associated CO2 avoidance. Our rationale is that all purchases signal to suppliers our desire for them to maintain and broaden their renewable electricity offerings."

Or, as Balta put it, "When it comes to climate change, if you’re the atmosphere, there’sonly one thing you care about, and it’s reducing emissions."

IBM actually has set three CO2 reduction goals since 2000. Its most recent one called for an emissions reduction of 35 percent by 2020, using 2005 as the baseline year. The company surpassed that goal near the end of 2016, and it reported a reduction of almost 43 percent for its managed locations.

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