Federal agencies must do more on sustainability

Even with some evident progress, federal agencies need to move faster to meet the administration’s ambitious climate goals

Nearly a year and a half since President Joe Biden sought to catalyze America’s clean energy economy by ramping up federal sustainability efforts with an executive order on sustainability, agencies are more focused than ever on reducing emissions and modernizing aging legacy technology.

At the General Services Administration, officials are working to comply with the executive order by decarbonizing federal buildings through energy efficiency and “carbon pollution-free electricity.” The Energy Department is boosting its acquisition of electric vehicles and electric vehicle supply equipment.

Even with some evident progress, federal agencies need to move faster to meet the administration’s ambitious climate goals — including a reduction in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 50-to-52% from 2005 levels by 2030 — while balancing technology modernization initiatives.

In a fortuitous twist, sustainability and digital transformation go together as transformation drives sustainability. Moving to newer technologies will reduce emissions, because today’s products are more energy efficient. When approaching IT modernization, federal leaders would do well to consider the business case for sustainability.

Data is also a driver for sustainability, with experts noting that data-driven sustainability initiatives will give government leaders the information they need to make smarter operational decisions. The more actionable data they have, the better.

In this sustainability effort, the federal government is fighting against its own history. The legacy IT infrastructures that agencies are now trying to modernize were not energy efficient, especially data centers, which by themselves account for about 2% of U.S. electricity use. The government has been closing federal data centers for more than a decade.

Overcoming that history requires a combination of thinking broadly and drilling down on specifics. On a conceptual level, federal organizations must embed ESG (environment, social and governance) principles into their thinking and planning, heightening their green credentials to help achieve better mission outcomes and efficiencies.

They could potentially learn from private industry, where ESG has become an increasingly vital benchmark of organizational credibility. Congress could also heighten the focus on sustainability by including ESG metrics on the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act scorecard issued by the House Oversight and Reform Committee.

Once they have sharpened their overarching principles, federal leaders can focus on new modernization approaches, such as improving data center energy efficiency. One possibility: exploring a switch to sensor-driven edge data centers, which enable agencies to gain insights faster in the field and have a smaller footprint than larger data facilities.

Beyond the data center, agencies should heed the executive order’s call to employ their “procurement power” to achieve emissions-reduction goals. They can explore using set-asides to reserve certain parts of federal projects for companies and contractors that meet defined eco-sustainability guidelines, and they can build energy-efficiency requirements into every procurement.

Another important sustainability touchstone is data storage, with eco-friendly storage helping to reduce carbon footprint. Agencies should consider whether they need the latest nonvolatile memory express (NVMe) storage media, which requires more electrical power, or whether equally performant, more energy efficient SAS storage will meet their needs.

Virtual desktop infrastructure — widely used to support remote work — should be a consideration for any agency that hasn’t yet adopted it. In addition to the benefit of streamlined management, running desktop workloads on centralized servers reduces hardware and energy costs.

Even low-tech solutions — basic operational efficiencies — are beneficial in conserving energy. Federal managers can reduce data footprints, for example, by controlling file duplication. Improved data classification and management will help agencies reduce data volumes, and by extension, server and storage hardware and associated energy costs. The conscious decision to reduce file duplication and embrace digital transformation conserves energy and resources, setting a precedent for sustainable practices across federal agencies and beyond.

However they choose to get there, federal leaders must not lose sight of the end goal: to fight the climate crisis by fostering a more sustainable government and society. With concerted effort, sustainability can become an embedded business practice with mission, economic, and environmental benefits for society today, and for decades to come.


Gary Hix is the Chief Technology Officer for Hitachi Vantara Federal.

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