Austin Energy is no Johnny-come-lately to energy efficiency among US companies. The $1.2 billion power company estimates that it has saved energy equivalent to the output of a 660MW power plant since 1985, when it launched the first in an extensive line-up of innovative energy conservation and renewable resources programs. Austin Energy's goal is to boost that total savings by an additional 750 megawatts of power by 2020.

Also, for the sixth year in a row, the city-owned power company ranks as the No. 1 seller of green energy, including solar and wind power, among all US electric utilities.

"We pride ourselves on being one of the most progressive utilities in the world," says CIO Andres Carvallo.

The most important goal of Austin Energy's energy-saving initiatives is reducing reliance on electricity and thus lowering overall carbon dioxide emissions. To reach that goal, it plans to use technologies such as smart appliances to monitor and control power usage at customer sites. The utility also plans to implement new server and storage technology, including multi-core CPUs, virtualisation, and de-duplication and compression techniques in its own datacentre.

Currently, the company's 1,600- person IT department is running just over 600 servers on 150 physical machines. This translates to 40 percent energy savings, says Carvallo.

What's special: Uses server virtualisation to run 600 servers on just 150 physical machines, thus slicing energy use by 40 percent.

What's cheap: Receives 35 percent of revenue online.

Austin Energy's IT group manages 195,000 real-time devices used for automated electricity metering and distribution. That number will increase to 500,000 devices by early 2009. The company also now receives 35 percent of its revenue online, up from no online payments in 2003.

Henry Wong, a member of The Green Grid consortium, lauds Austin Energy's IT efforts, which have enabled the utility to communicate with customers about their time-sensitive power requirements. A so-called smart power grid, which delivers power when needed and conserves power when it isn't needed, would be impossible without such communication, he says.

"We know that technology can facilitate that with better automation and controls," adds Wong. "Austin Energy is willing to become the proving ground by offering that automation to monitor demand and have systems capable of being able to react to that demand."

When WellPoint buys a server from Dell, it voluntarily pays the vendor an extra $40. When it buys an ink-jet printer, it happily ponies up another buck over the purchase price.

The health benefits company was a founding partner in Dell's "Plant a Forest for Me" program, in which Dell and volunteering customers pay conservation groups to plant trees to offset the carbon emissions produced by powering computer devices.

Mark Boxer, president and CEO of WellPoint's operations, technology and government services business unit, says there are "three legs to the stool" of the company's green initiatives. First are "continuous small improvements, like increasing recycling, moving toward green paper and the like." Second are big, one-time initiatives such as replacing the firm's enterprise datacentre, a multi-year effort that was completed in 2003. Third are special partnerships, like WellPoint's linkup with IBM to implement best practices and technologies such as server consolidations.

Boxer says savings from these efforts can be difficult to compute, but the company cut expenses $13,000 a month by moving its California datacentre to Richmond, Va., and upgrading it to more efficient gear.

Several years ago, WellPoint became sharply focused on becoming more efficient, especially on reducing administrative costs, and that was the initial emphasis in its conservation efforts, Boxer says. As a result, the company has reduced IT spending per staffer by five percent in each of the past three years. But with the drive for overall efficiency came a "social mission" and a "desire to be a better citizen," he says.

Dave McDonald, vice president of infrastructure support services, cites a push to substitute videoconferencing for travel as a successful green IT initiative. He says employees will spend 25,000 hours at videoconferencing this year, avoiding 4,500 tons of carbon dioxide emissions from cars and planes.

What's special: Moved its datacentre from California to Virginia, saving $13,000 a month.

What's cheap: Focuses on small improvements, like increasing recycling and using recycled paper.

McDonald says WellPoint eliminated 900 older, inefficient computers through server consolidations and replaced most of its old CRTs with more energy-efficient LCD monitors. He says the company is now evaluating new high-efficiency cooling technology from IBM for several data centres. Also, WellPoint is looking at more environmentally friendly alternatives to tape for data storage.

Of videoconferencing, McDonald says, "People here were kind of scared of it. They didn't know if it was hard to do or how it worked. But once they used it, it was an easy sell."

Indeed, some resistance to green initiatives is to be expected, Boxer says. "A lot of the improvements are about removing entitlements," he says. "Does everyone need a printer in their office? Does everyone need to travel to meetings? Moving away from these mind-sets requires very senior sponsorship."

Frank Gens, an analyst at IDC, says IT must have support from the business units to overcome user resistance. "It's hard for IT to drive that kind of cultural change on its own," he says. "That's a losing hand for the CIO."

"Go after the quick wins first," Boxer advises. "There are immediate opportunities that don't require a big capital investment. Also, look outside your four walls. We don't have the market cornered on best practices."