IBM is set to launch a programme that would make it possible for customers to document server energy savings - and even trade them for cash.

The company said that this scheme was an industry first. IBM is initially making it available only for its mainframes, although the company plans to extend it to all its server lines and storage systems as well.

Here's the catch though. The scheme works by persuading customers to move their distributed systems, x86 servers for example, and consolidate them on a mainframe (IBM, of course). This move should result in energy savings. Those savings would be calculated by Neuwing Energy Ventures, an independent firm verifying and trading in energy efficiency certificates.

More specifically, IBM say its ongoing consolidation of 3,900 distributed systems onto 33 mainframes will eventually save the company 119,000 megawatt hours annually. The megawatt hours of savings that Neuwing will calculate will include the total savings to power and cool the data centre. One energy efficiency certificate is issued for each megawatt hour saved per year.

Those certificates, in IBM's example, would have an estimated value of between US$300,000 and $1 million based on market conditions, said Rich Lechner, IBM's vice president of IT optimisation. Those certificates could be issued for each year of the life of the project.

"The value of these certificates is minute to the real energy savings and the real operational savings that you re going to realise," said Lechner.

However, energy efficiency certificates may prove mere frosting on the layers of punishments and incentives already pushing data-center managers to save energy. Unrelenting server growth, rising power bills, insufficient cooling and even power availability have turned power and cooling issues into the number-one data center headache. The US Environmental Protection Agency, which was asked by Congress last year to study power consumption by data centres, reported in August that it expected computer and data centre power consumption to double over the next five years.

IBM isn't alone in providing a financial incentive for energy efficiency. Pacific Gas & Electric, for instance, is working with major utilities to expand a programme that pays a company between $150 and $300 per server removed from service. The utility has been encouraging its customers to adopt virtualisation to increase server utilisation.

Under IBM's programme, a company could keep its energy certificates and use them simply as proof of corporate responsibility. But other companies might sell these certificates on one of the emerging carbon markets.

If you are operating a data center in the centre of London, your data centre"is a huge percentage of your total power consumption and thereby your CO2 emissions," said Lechner. "If you don't achieve the savings yourself, you acquire it from a third party," he said, which is this case would be mean buying energy savings certificates.

Existing mainframe users can also claim credits based on increased computing requirements. To the degree that you demonstrate that you are growing on an efficient platform, and avoiding costs such as lightly-used x86 servers, you can project savings, said Lechner.

Original reporting by Computerworld US