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How Washington Can Set an Energy Innovation Example

As policymakers in Washington ponder next steps for energy and climate legislation, one thing is clear: the federal government has a time-sensitive opportunity to lead by example and embrace what’s already working across multiple industry sectors.

Nowhere is there a more relevant example than information and communications technology (ICT), arguably one of the strongest assets we have in our nation’s arsenal to reduce carbon emissions, drive greater efficiencies and unlock innovation. From health care and manufacturing to agriculture and transportation, green data centers, virtualization and other smart technologies can each be credited for their role in greening global operations.  It’s time to cast a wider net and extend this impact.

To do so, public and private sector-leaders must unite behind shared objectives and deliverables. When considering the role of the federal government, a perfect starting place is the greening and modernization of federal data centers – an initiative the Obama Administration has recognized as a potential opportunity. According to a 2007 study by the EPA, federal servers and data centers account for approximately 6 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity use – a total of about $450 million annually – and energy use is expected to double by 2011. Upgrading federal data centers will make our government more efficient, more green, more open and more secure.

The influence of the ICT industry (and by extension of our millions of customers and end users) is felt across our economy. Federal and state policymakers must identify the ways ICT is having a ripple effect and replicate them to reap measurable economic and environmental benefits.  According to the SMART 2020 report released by The Climate Group, there is significant potential at hand: ICT-enabled solutions can cut down 15 percent of global emissions by 2020 – equivalent to $946.5 billion in cost savings.

Interconnectedness is also key. Smart grid technologies can monitor and reduce an organization’s energy use through a broadband connection. Meanwhile, expanded access to broadband enables more consumers, more businesses, and more governments to be creatively engaged online.  More people online increases the percentage partaking in emission-friendly practices like telecommuting, but it also will enable daily advancements such as improved health care, GPS-guided highway grading and construction, precision agriculture, smart buildings, and home energy costs controlled via a smart phone.  The web of cause-and-effect quickly becomes clear, and we have barely brushed the surface of what can be done.

This kind of technology has proven to be a saver on a number of fronts – reducing power outages and electricity costs nationwide.  Public agencies and private citizens alike are able to maximize returns by incorporating energy-saving retrofitting measures in their homes or offices, such as solar panels. State net metering policies – currently in place in 43 states, Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico – allow consumers to sell excess power generated by their solar panels back to local utility providers. Incentives like this will remain a major catalyst in empowering consumers to buy-in and adopt new technologies.

Encouraging businesses and consumers to share ideas must be another top objective. Both Congress and the Obama Administration should step to the plate on this issue, but they alone cannot dictate the conversation.  Today, the subject of ICT-enabled solutions is the focus of groups such as the Digital Energy Solutions Campaign (DESC), but it’s critical that policymakers and industry leaders do more to cultivate new ideas both online and off. Many of the nation’s leading consumer-facing companies – including Dell, Intel, Verizon and Starbucks – have implemented online forums and communities to help source new ways of going about internal policies and practices. The same can be applied to government.

So often we hear that talk is cheap. In this case, that’s not true – talk is both important and necessary. But action needs to follow. By working together, we can set a national strategy and roadmap for the use of ICT to improve energy efficiency and reduce green house gas emissions, identifying and removing the barriers to expanding U.S. leadership. The result will be meaningful progress at a time when Americans expect no less.

Chris Hankin is senior director of Environment and Sustainability at the Information Technology Industry Council.

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