Windsor (Calif.) Unified School District saves energy and resources in ways both big and small, from using recycled water for toilets to putting kindergarten registration forms online, says Heather Carver, district technology and information services director.

Apr 17 2008
Data Center

Save Green by Going Green

IT administrators can save their schools money by considering environmentally friendly technology solutions -- from virtualization to thin clients to just eliminating paper forms.

IT administrators can save their schools money by considering environmentally friendly technology solutions — from virtualization to thin clients to just eliminating paper forms.

The town of Windsor’s politicians, school officials and residents are all on board to “go green.” So when Heather Carver joined the Windsor Unified School District as technology and information services director in 2006, she was tasked to do the same. What she’s accomplished in less than two years can serve as a lesson that can be emulated by school IT departments nationwide.

“We always think big picture, and we take every chance to be friendly to the environment with every decision we make,” says Carver.

Windsor, an hour’s drive north of San Francisco, is a small, countryside town of 25,000 people, with tree-covered hills, valleys and vineyards. It’s in the heart of Northern California’s wine country, where environmental sentiment is strong.

The city and the school district, for example, have partnered to use recycled water to flush toilets and irrigate Windsor High School’s 40-acre property, saving 1.4 million gallons of fresh water annually. School buses are powered by biodiesel fuel, a naturally grown alternative to fossil fuel. Green products are used to clean the facilities. Schools have also developed recycling programs where students pick up and recycle garbage.

In the IT department, Carver and her staff have embarked on several new green initiatives designed to curtail the amount of waste that enters landfills and to cut down on energy consumption and reduce greenhouse gases. She’s turning to thin-client computers, which cut down on power consumption. She’s beefing up online resources, including putting kindergarten registration forms and the entire registration process online, so the district doesn’t have to waste paper and parents don’t have to waste fuel driving back and forth to the school.

The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that one in every four dollars schools spend on energy is unnecessary.

Schools play a big role in the fight against global warming. Educators can teach students about the damaging effects climate change has on the Earth. Schools can lead by example by being as environmentally friendly as possible, and in doing so, turn their own initiatives into hands-on learning exercises, whether it’s a recycling program, a wind turbine or simply teaching students that shutting down computers in the lab when not in use can save energy.

School IT departments win both ways when they pursue green initiatives: They become environmentally friendly, but they also save money by deploying more energy-efficient technology. For example, in Madison Metropolitan School District in Wisconsin, the IT department purchases Energy Star–compliant computers and is switching from bulky CRT monitors to more energy-efficient LCD screens. The district has also turned to server virtualization software to consolidate servers and cut down on power consumption, says Mark Evans, the district’s director of technical services.

Being eco-friendly and saving money are two benefits that are closely aligned, says Richard Kebo, interim chief technology officer at Clovis Unified School District in Clovis, Calif.

“I’m an advocate of green initiatives,” says Kebo, who is deploying blade servers and virtualization. “It’s my job to run the IT department efficiently and effectively. But it’s as much about cost savings from reduced power usage and reduced cooling in the data center as it is about being green. They go hand in hand.”

The Benefits of Thin Clients

At Windsor, Carver is tackling two technology projects that have environmental ramifications: the school’s Web site and desktop computing.

She has built a new district Web site designed to help reduce the amount of paperwork the district generates by placing all district documents online and developing electronic work flow. That way, staffers in the future can fill out forms, such as payroll deposit slips, and route them to the business department electronically.

She’s also created new Web-site services that allow parents to make transactions online, so they don’t have to waste gas on extra trips to their children’s schools. For example, if children are sick, their parents no longer have to pick up their homework at school. Now, they can download the day’s lectures and homework assignments from the school’s Web site. Parents can also purchase food cards and obtain bus passes online. That way, they don’t have to waste paper by writing checks that must be processed by banks, Carver says.

“We’re green and we’re trying to make our Web site like a college, where you can enroll or turn in forms. There’s no reason why K–12 schools can’t offer the same services,” she says.

Today, kindergarten registration forms are online, allowing parents to print out and hand-deliver the forms to schools. Carver hopes to make the whole process electronic by the start of the 2008–2009 school year.

The district — whose superintendent, Steven Herrington, received the Governor’s Environmental and Economic Leadership Award in 2006 — is also in the midst of replacing more than half of its students’ and teachers’ desktop computers with thin-client computers, where the processing power and applications reside on servers. Carver is standardizing on Linux-based servers and Citrix Systems’ XenApp (formerly Presentation Server) software, which streams Windows applications onto Wyse Technology thin-client computing devices.

Because everything resides on the server, thin clients are easier to manage and more secure, but they also offer many green benefits, she says. Thin clients have no processors, fans or hard drives, so they use about 40 percent less energy than desktop computers, she says.

Windsor successfully implemented a thin-client pilot during fall 2006, replacing an elementary school’s computer lab with thin clients. Last summer, Carver outfitted another elementary school’s computer lab and its 28 teachers with thin-client computers, and they’ve worked without a hitch, which is another environmental benefit: With everything centralized on servers, IT staffers no longer have to drive several miles to each school to troubleshoot computers and replace hardware components.

“Kids can’t mess with the [thin-client] computers. They can’t install or delete things. It’s very stable. Productivity is up 99 percent because nothing is failing,” Carver says.

This summer, the IT department will equip two more schools with thin clients. Carver hopes to finish the migration within two years. To save money, the district may turn old desktop computers into thin-client devices by taking out unnecessary parts, such as hard drives. That, too, helps protect the environment because it’s lengthening the life of the computers, she says.

Energy Efficiency

Fifteen percent of schools’ energy waste comes from outdated equipment; 10 percent simply from not turning off lights and computers or from using space heaters in classrooms.

For the past decade, Madison Metropolitan School District has focused on energy conservation, not only to educate students on the importance of environmentalism but also to reduce its energy bill because of budget cuts. The district has done everything from installing solar panels in high schools to replacing incandescent lighting with more energy-efficient fluorescent lighting.

Evans, the director of technical services, has worked closely with the district’s building services director to reduce IT equipment energy consumption. About a year and a half ago, the IT department purchased PC energy-management software that automatically puts PCs and monitors in low-power sleep mode when they are inactive and shuts machines down completely at night. The district has implemented the power-saving software on the majority of its 9,000 desktop PCs, but the technology doesn’t work on its 2,000 older computers running Windows 98. To be even more energy efficient, the district wants to replace these Windows 98 computers as quickly as possible, he says.

The district estimates the technology can reduce energy costs 39 percent per PC, and save the district about $670,000 from its energy bill during a five-year period, he says.

Evans has started upgrading monitors too. About 18 months ago, the IT department started replacing CRT monitors with more energy-efficient LCD screens and hopes to complete the migration within two years. And each year, as printers become obsolete, he upgrades to newer models that feature the sleep function. “We’ve been very energy-focused the last several years,” he says.

Greening the Data Center

Madison (Wis.) Metro School District hopes to save energy by spending money. The district expects to reduce its energy costs when it replaces its older PCs running Windows 98, says Mark Evans, district technical services director.

Evans is also greening the data center and has used virtualization software, technology that allows IT departments to consolidate servers and reduce hardware and energy costs.

Companies historically have run one application per server, which is not efficient. Virtualization software partitions a server into multiple “virtual machines,” which act like separate servers. Each virtual machine, housing its own operating system and application, shares the same server resources, such as processing power and memory, but the virtual machines operate independent of each other. The biggest benefit is improved server utilization, which results in server consolidation and cost savings.

A two-processor server running virtualization software can support eight to 12 applications. Each virtualized server can save a district 7,000 kilowatts of electricity, or about $560 a year, Evans says.

Madison reached a peak of 145 servers two years ago, but is now down to about 100 boxes, thanks to 56 virtualized servers. When the project is done, the district hopes to have nine virtual server boxes hosting more than 100 servers, Evans says.

Today, about 56 servers that were once standalone are now housed as virtual machines on six rack-mounted servers, he says. While the district hasn’t done the math on how much energy virtualization has saved, “We’ve certainly cut our energy consumption by a huge amount,” Evans says.

Virtualization also reduces the need to purchase new server boxes each time the district needs to install and deploy a new server or application.

Evans, however, admits that reducing energy consumption was not the main driver for him to pursue virtualization. Rather, it was to build an architecture that made it easier for users to share and access data. In the past, with data stored on different server hard drives, it took special rights to get to data. But with virtualization, all the data is stored on a storage area network (SAN), giving users easier access to what they need.

To reduce paper, Evans is installing a document-management system that will digitize all the paper files in the district’s special-education department. Today, the department has about 815 feet of paper files. Anytime a teacher needs a child’s file, the main office pulls a folder from the filing cabinet, photocopies the materials and delivers them to one of its 46 schools the next day.

“With electronic document management, we will eliminate the need to print anything,” says Evans, who plans to move other district departments to the document-management system as quickly as possible.

At Clovis Unified, Kebo is also migrating to thin- client computing and greening his data center. In his case, he’s recently migrated to blade servers and will begin virtualization in earnest.

Blade servers consume less power because of their compact design and ability to share common resources, such as power supplies and cabling, Kebo says. Because blade servers take up less data-center space, they require less cooling, which also saves on the energy bill, he says.

At Windsor, Carver also plans to deploy blade servers and virtualization software to consolidate 30 servers down to 12.

Working Together

The 133,000 K–12 public schools in the U.S. spend $6 billion on energy annually, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Overall, school district IT departments are pursuing green projects either on their own or as part of a districtwide initiative in which they work with other stakeholders, including facilities managers. Throughout the process, one thing Carver has learned is that when it comes to going green, the public and private sectors are willing to help.

For example, when she first arrived, the district paid for recycling old IT equipment, but she made calls and found another recycling center willing to accept old technology for free. When she shopped for a thin- client solution, her vendors gave her discounts and some free equipment. And when she wanted to allow parents to make online transactions, she called a local bank, and the bank agreed to waive all credit card processing fees.

“Just ask,” she says. “When it comes to helping protect the environment, [you’d] be surprised by what people say yes to.”

L.A. Unified Lets the Sunshine In

Not all energy savings occur inside a school; sometimes the savings come from a school’s grounds or the building itself.

In 2001, the Los Angeles Unified School District adopted guidelines that required its officials to modernize existing campuses and build new schools that are energy-efficient and green. The district is basing its environmental guidelines on standards created by the nonprofit Collaborative for High Performance Schools.

The guidelines include building schools near public transportation; the use of high-efficiency plumbing and drought-resistant landscaping; the use of energy-efficient equipment and renewable energy, such as solar power; and the use of recycled materials. By 2007, the school district had applied the building criteria into 15 existing schools and 42 new schools, including the Maywood Academy, a $94 million high school that opened in 2006.

Maywood features plenty of windows, so the school can take advantage of daylight and rely less on the lighting system, resulting in better energy efficiency. When staffers open windows, the central heating and cooling system automatically turns off. To save water, the district planted drought-tolerant, hardy shrubs and vines and uses the city’s reclaimed water for irrigation. Recycled materials were used to build parts of the building, including ceiling tiles. To improve productivity in classrooms, the district installed dual-paneled windows to block outside noise.

A school can cut utility costs by up to 40 percent by being energy efficient, says Guy Mehula, chief facilities executive at L.A. Unified. By focusing on building new schools close to residential areas, students can walk to school rather than being bused more than an hour away. And while the district doesn’t yet have statistics showing improved student scores, Mehula says the schools are providing a much better learning environment. Students, he says, are clearly benefiting from increased daylight in classrooms and improved acoustics.

“We build sustainable schools because they’re good for students and teachers, they’re good for the budget and they’re good for the environment,” he says.

Iowa School District Harvests the Wind

Spirit Lake (Iowa) Community School District generates most of its electricity through two wind turbines it built in the past 15 years. But that never would have happened if not for a flag football game.

In the early 1990s, the superintendent and a board member for the district were watching their children play flag football during a windy day when one remarked, “Couldn’t we do something with this wind?”

“Soon after, this board member read an article about wind turbines, brought it to the superintendent, and it snowballed from there,” recalls Jim Tirevold, the district’s facility director.

In 1993, the district purchased a $239,500 wind turbine for its elementary school. Half the funds came from a grant by the U.S. Department of Energy, the other half from a low-interest loan backed by the state’s Department of Natural Resources. The turbine, which paid itself off by 1998, produces 312,000 kilowatts of energy annually and has saved the district more than $200,000 in energy costs so far, Tirevold says.

The first turbine was so successful, the district purchased a second one in 2001. The second turbine produces 1.6 million kilowatts of energy a year, and with both turbines operating, they initially produced 100 percent of the energy the district needed. But with the addition of new schools in recent years, they now produce about 60 percent of the energy the district consumes, Tirevold says. Overall, the turbines generate $160,000 worth of energy a year.

The district is currently negotiating with the local utility company to purchase and install a third turbine, he says.

“It’s a sense of pride for the community and it’s an educational tool, too,” Tirevold says. “What better resource is there to teach kids when they look out their school window and we can explain to them what the wind turbine is doing?”

Tips on Going Green With IT

1. Purchase more energy-efficient products. Notebook computers consume less power than desktop computers, while thin-client computing uses even less energy. To purchase the greenest products possible, shop for technology that features the Energy Star label. Energy Star products meet stringent government guidelines for energy efficiency. For example, the latest Energy Star 4.0 rating requires PC makers to use power supplies that convert 80 percent of the incoming power from the outlet into usable computer power, meaning only 20 percent of the power is wasted.

2. Turn off IT equipment that is not in use. Most schools have some IT equipment, such as servers, printers or disk storage, that are on but are abandoned and no longer in use. Find them and unplug them. Schools should also turn off their computers, monitors and printers at night.

Use the power-management settings that put computers, printers and other equipment into sleep mode.

3. Besides using blade servers and virtualization, schools can do the following to further green their data center:

  • Upgrade to new servers to consolidate. Schools can consolidate servers by replacing their old, single-processor servers with new servers that have multicore processors, which are more powerful and more energy-efficient, according to The Green Grid, a technology consortium aimed at producing more energy-efficient data centers.
  • Redesign your data center. IT departments can redesign their data centers to improve air flow and reduce the amount of power used to cool the servers. For example, reposition or unblock air vents, and reposition servers to prevent cold air and hot air from mixing.

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