IG: Energy is setting a poor example for conservation

On Monday, Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced plans to spend $256 million in Recovery Act funds to promote energy efficiency in manufacturing and information technology in the private sector. But before federal officials start prescribing private sector energy practices, Chu might want to take a closer look at his own department's operations.

While Chu was touting the benefits of reducing industrial energy use and limiting greenhouse gas emissions, the department's watchdog released a critical report chronicling missed opportunities to decrease energy use and save millions of dollars in the process.

In reviewing practices at seven sites, auditors found that federal officials and contractors had not taken some of the most basic steps to reduce consumption, such as setting computers to shut down or go into standby mode when not being used for a period of time. Such practices are required by federal regulation and were spelled out in Executive Order 13423, signed by President George W. Bush in January 2007.

"Given its highly visible leadership in energy issues, aggressive action should be taken to make the department's information technology operations as energy efficient as possible so that it can serve as a role model for both the federal and private sector," Energy Inspector General Gregory Friedman wrote in the report.

In 2008, Energy spent at least $1.6 million on utility bills it could have avoided had officials activated power-management settings on desktop and laptop computers, the IG said.

Auditors found that monitors on 20 computers reviewed at the National Energy Technology Laboratory were set to never to turn off. At the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, monitors on eight of 18 computers were scheduled to turn off after 48 hours of nonuse -- 144 times the recommended standard set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Also, very few computers were set to go into hibernation when not in use for long periods of time. "Using EPA calculations, we determined that placing a computer into hibernation and standby mode could have saved on average $25 per machine annually at the sites reviewed, or approximately $1.2 million per year for the 46,435 machines reviewed," the IG wrote.

Auditors also reported that none of the seven sites had adopted a technology known as thin-client computing for unclassified operations, despite a departmental study that concluded overall energy consumption could be reduced 55 percent by doing so. Thin-client computing uses central servers instead of desktops for processing certain activities and can reduce end-user energy costs up to 95 percent, cut acquisition and disposal costs, and improve cybersecurity. While thin-client computing is not appropriate in every setting, the IG estimated the department could have saved $1.2 million in hardware costs alone by using thin-client processing where applicable at the seven sites reviewed.

In addition, five of the seven sites had not monitored the amount of energy used by their data centers, an area of growing concern governmentwide and in the private sector. Studies have predicted that the amount of energy consumed by data centers will double in five years, an issue Energy and EPA have been actively working to address for more than two years. The department's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy recently spent $465,000 to develop an automated tool to identify energy-saving opportunities within data centers, yet none of the seven sites auditors reviewed had used it.

Friedman recommended Energy leaders develop and implement procedures for ensuring power-management settings are enabled on department computers, determine the benefits associated with using thin-client computing in an unclassified environment, and analyze and reduce energy consumption at data centers.

Energy officials responding to the report largely concurred with the recommendations.

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