The Bush administration and a consortium of tech companies Tuesday vowed to drive down government and corporate data center energy use by 10 percent by 2011, saving about 10 billion kilowatt-hours, or roughly the amount of energy consumed by one million U.S. households annually.

The forests of monolithic computer servers that comprise today's data centers have grown into an indispensable component of modern life, crunching volumes of information and ensuring that Google or Yahoo search engine results are delivered in mere seconds. But the benefits of increasingly powerful data centers come at a steep cost in energy usage: as much as 61 billion kilowatt-hours in the U.S. alone—1.5 percent of the country's entire electricity consumption.

Recognizing that the need to use and store digital information will grow exponentially over time, the U.S. Department of Energy promised to work with a group of private companies to improve efficiency without sacrificing the benefits of new technologies. Alexander Karsner, assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy, and John Tuccillo, director of the Green Grid, which represents 92 information technology companies and professionals seeking to lower the overall consumption of power in data centers, announced the deal during a press conference at the New York Stock Exchange. Tuccillo is also vice president of industry alliances for American Power Conversion Corp., a member of the Green Grid.

Karsner called the agreement "a new chapter in public and private partnerships." He praised the Green Grid members—among them fierce competitors like chipmakers Intel and AMD—for cooperating "for the global good."

The energy department and members of the Green Grid—which also includes Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Microsoft—signed a memorandum of understanding to work together to develop over the next three years a common set of metrics and tools for measuring data-center energy consumption, to encourage data centers to obtain energy savings assessments, and to train personnel to conduct energy savings assessments and use tools to identify energy efficiency enhancements.

In addition to cutting energy use by 10 percent in five years, such improvements are also projected to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 6.5 million tons per year, which the energy department says is akin to removing nearly 1.3 million cars from the road annually.

Officials acknowledge it will be a challenge, especially in the face of increasing amounts of heat generated by newer, faster computer processors and the use of increasingly compact rack-mounted servers that are more difficult to cool. All of this is driven by the demand for more and more computing power to support the world's growing dependency on digital technologies such as the Web. As equipment in data centers is packed closer together, and the centers themselves expand, increasing amounts of electrical power will be required to keep things running.

One vendor of data-center airflow engineering products and services that attended the press conference praised the memorandum but was skeptical the players could pull it off. The key to keeping data-center equipment cool is not to crank up the air conditioning but rather to find better ways of removing heat, says Lloyd Mainers, U.S. east coast manager for Sub-Zero in Alpharetta, Ga. Although not a member of the consortium, Sub-Zero is hoping that companies will use its computational fluid dynamic simulations to better identify hot spots in their data centers and how airflow can be maximized to remove the hot air.

"Information technology people are not equipped to deal with the problem by themselves," Mainers adds. "You need to put IT people, facilities people and their utility companies at the same table" to understand what needs to be done.