TL; DR: In 1992, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) introduced the first ENERGY STAR designated product line, which included environmentally friendly versions of PCs and computer monitors. The ENERGY STAR program has since expanded its footprint and now puts its stamp of approval on green technologies ranging from household products to carbon-neutral commercial buildings. As one of the largest consumers of power in the digital age, datacenters have long been a focus of the program. And, today, ENERGY STAR’s standards on ecologically sound power-saving practices are leading to more efficient datacenters, which is positively impacting the environment and the bottom lines of hosting providers and their customers.
As its name implies, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is tasked with promoting environmentally friendly standards of operation to organizations throughout the US. In 1992, the agency launched ENERGY STAR as a self-regulatory program where companies could voluntarily benchmark the efficiency of both their manufactured products and internal equipment.
Products that meet ENERGY STAR’s high standards are awarded the program’s seal of approval — a symbol consumers now view as the pinnacle of efficiency and ecologically responsible business practices. In addition to common consumer-facing technologies, ENERGY STAR sets specifications for a variety of products used in datacenters, including servers, storage, large network equipment, and uninterruptible power supplies.
Backed by the EPA and Department of Energy (DOE), ENERGY STAR provides reliable data on which IT-focused business can make well-informed decisions that not only reduce emissions, waste, and pollutants, but also save money.
Roughly seven years ago, the ENERGY STAR program underwent a significant procedural change. Until 2010, manufacturers would test equipment without clearly defined laboratory or certification requirements, send the data to the EPA, and sign a declaration to ensure authenticity. Today, ENERGY STAR works with laboratories to provide the most accurate and up-to-date information regarding the energy efficiency of products, commercial buildings, and datacenters.
Developing Government-Backed Efficiency Standards Since 1992
Founded by EPA official John Hoffman in 1992, ENERGY STAR was created to address the rise of technology trends. The internet was emerging, as well as modern cellphones and personal digital assistants. Computers were integrated into an increasing number of products and homes, and environmental awareness had reached an all-time high with the recent establishment of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) in 1988.
Accompanying this were several bans on ozone-depleting compounds such as CFCs. ENERGY STAR began its assessments with printers and other computer-related products before expanding to heating and cooling systems in 1995, followed by numerous other product categories in the coming years.
While alternative energy sources are being slowly adopted, the majority of electrical power plants run on fossil fuels that leave a profound carbon footprint. As a result, ENERGY STAR, together with the EPA and DOE, aimed to help oil-dependent organizations make the most out of a flawed, yet long-established system.
Concerns over greenhouse gas emissions, rising electricity costs, and the safe disposal of nonrenewable or potentially hazardous materials — such as batteries, plastic cases, and vacuum tubes — meant that businesses as well as the general public would need to be educated on energy efficiency. By assessing energy consumption benchmarks, ENERGY STAR helps identify which products and buildings use the least amount of energy — and therefore the least amount of fossil fuel.
ENERGY STAR, together with its more than 18,000 partners, has helped American businesses and households save upward of $430 billion in energy bills, as well as adopt cleaner technology with significant emission reductions.
Evolving Alongside the New Demands of a Technology-Driven Market
While ENERGY STAR began with testing computer products and heating/cooling systems, the number of categories and programs under its purview expanded rapidly.
“Most people think of the ENERGY STAR label as something they encounter on consumer-facing products,” an ENERGY STAR spokesperson said. “It’s raised our visibility and made us very successful.”
As technology has grown, new efficiency standards have developed, and ENERGY STAR has extended into assessing broader product categories, including IT equipment. ENERGY STAR’s far-reaching influence continues to extend into nearly every industry — any equipment that runs on electricity has the potential for improvement.
The program’s spokesperson told us one of ENERGY STAR’s most noticeable shifts has been the surprising increase in the number of commercial products it rates — namely, large-scale datacenter equipment. Among the more recently added product categories are storage media, enterprise servers, networking equipment, and uninterruptible power supplies.
“These are the things businesses are buying,” he said.
Because nearly every modern enterprise also has an online presence, the respective websites are going to be powered by constantly running infrastructure, as the alternative to constant power is devastating downtime. Therefore, many hosts have taken the green approach in light of increasing environmental concerns and rising energy costs.
“Datacenters are a great example of how we can take the holistic approach,” the spokesperson said. “We can offer tips on use, HVAC, and heating and cooling to promote efficiency.”
Advancing Green Practices to Benefit the Environment and Industry
In addition to assessing numerous appliances and peripherals, ENERGY STAR also rates entire homes and commercial and industrial buildings, assigning scores on a scale of 0 to 100. Buildings with a rating of at least 75 qualify for the ENERGY STAR logo. Businesses can easily calculate their scores online using the Portfolio Manager tool.
Scores are computed in relation to location, size, hours of operation, total metered energy, and calculated source EUI. For large organizations, these calculations can help diagnose potential problems such as faulty equipment or underperforming or poorly wired buildings. Facilities that run efficiently — especially in the industrial category — benefit from lower expenses and smoother operations while helping to reduce environmental impact.
In the IT field, ENERGY STAR’s involvement could take the form of rating specific products, datacenter buildings, or even educating partners on energy-related best practices.
“Datacenters are highly sophisticated operations with huge utility bills,” the spokesperson said. “Usually, they’ll have staff whose whole job is to make sure everything is energy efficient.”
While typical datacenters are already incentivized for energy efficiency, the structure of embedded servers tends to focus on raw power and smooth operations. That’s why ENERGY STAR is in the process of launching an informative campaign to help ease the transition to greater efficiency with a list of small steps, accompanied by toolkits and online resources.
The Future: Applying Cross-Energy Strategies to Large Datacenters
While the ENERGY STAR program is completely voluntary, the EPA seeks to encourage best practices as much as possible. Due to increasing concerns over efficiency and the availability of clean energy, the ENERGY STAR program has been a driving force behind the widespread adoption of low-energy home and office equipment such as light bulbs, televisions, and PCs.
As technology develops, it generally conforms to the increasingly efficient standards set forth by ENERGY STAR, as seen in the multitude of monitors, laptops, and other appliances with low-consumption standby modes.
Looking ahead, the organization’s spokesperson said he plans on attending future trade shows and conferences to promote ENERGY STAR’s new cross-energy program.
“We’ve had success working with utilities to incentivize ENERGY STAR products,” he said. “We’re looking at ways to apply that to the datacenter. Utilities are looking for the big fish — the datacenters hosted in large buildings.”
In addition to direct incentives, ENERGY STAR Certified products and buildings have gained a government-issued seal of approval, which greatly improves brand reputation and trust — especially in the minds of environmentally-aware tech enthusiasts.
Created to mitigate the accumulation of carbon emissions and high energy costs, the ENERGY STAR program is one of the best and most widely recognized initiatives for assessing energy efficiency. By equipping manufacturers, consumers, and IT professionals with transparency regarding energy consumption, ENERGY STAR has saved them billions of dollars in operational costs and a copious amount of CO2 emissions.