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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Q: What's the difference between an SUV, a server and ten 65 watt light bulbs? A: Apparently nothing when it comes to carbon emissions

In my May 16th post, Server Footprint from SUV to Light Bulb Equivalent in 5 months, I mentioned further exploring the carbon footprint comparison among servers, standard light bulbs and SUVs. Now, here’s my take.

The December 2007 report, An Inefficient Truth, states that “a medium sized server has roughly the same annual carbon footprint as an SUV doing 15 miles per gallon.”
In an apparent amazing leap of improvement in only five months, an EU paper from May 2008, Addressing the Challenge of Energy Efficiency through Information and Communication Technologies, states "the most advanced computer servers consume the same amount of energy as a standard light bulb”.

From an SUV to a single light bulb - almost too good to believe.

The authors of An Inefficient Truth point towards The Carbon Neutral Company as their source for the comparison. The folks at The Carbon Neutral Company reference the Feb 2007 Jonathan Koomey paper, Estimating Total Power Consumption by Servers in the US and the World, which identifies the typical power of a medium sized server as 638 watts (2005). Multiply that wattage by 24 hours, 365 days a year, double it to allow for energy required for cooling and apply an average carbon emissions factor for UK grid electricity 0.52kgCO2/kWh. This is compared with an SUV doing 15,000 miles per year and an emissions factor of 2.33kgCO2/litre for gas and the answers come out at about the same 5.7tCO2/yr.

The comparison sounds reasonable.

But that also means that operating an SUV for a year has the same carbon emissions as ten 65W light bulbs (albeit bulbs that are left on all the time). It doesn't sound as bad to say that a server has the same emissions as ten light bulbs as it does to compare it to an SUV. And it is far more credible to have got from 10 bulbs equivalent energy consumption in 2005 to one bulb equivalent in the most advanced computer servers of today.

For the record, BT uses very high proportions of renewable energy and combined heat and power, we have implemented many innovative cooling mechanisms (including not cooling where appropriate!) and use the most efficient servers wherever possible so our emissions are far lower whether your preference is to compare to the light bulbs or the SUV!

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Smart (energy) Grid - Environmental and Social Sustainability Benefits

I attended the Corporate Climate and Energy Summit of the World Resources Institute earlier this week in Washington, DC. I participated in an informative, frank and very upbeat breakout session on the Smart (energy) Grid with speakers from Cisco, SunEdison and GridPoint.

If you have not come across Smart Grid before, the basic technologies enable energy consumption at a user level to be measured and displayed in real time. Users can see how much is being used at any one time and which devices are driving that usage and take action appropriately. It also enables discrete pricing to be established so sophisticated pricing programs can be established to incent energy consumption to move from peak to off-peak times. Large industrial customers can put in place lower tariff interruptible supplies where, by prior agreement, supplies can be ceased during peak times.

This has significant potential carbon emission benefits. Some of the greatest carbon emissions come about when the oldest, least efficient coal fired stations are fired up to meet a couple of hours of peak usage in the middle of a hot day. Cutting those peaks and keeping that old station from being fired up has a disproportionately large benefit on reducing emissions.

If we connect the dots there is a direct link between demand from devices, supply and price. So for example, you could envisage a more sophisticated consumer customer setting the maximum energy prices they are prepared to pay for using the toaster, running the HVAC, running the freezer, etc. When the power provider is approaching a peak, the price is gradually increased until enough devices switch off that the high emissions coal station doesn't have to be fired up. Or, perhaps, we all allow our aircon thermostat automatically run two degrees higher for two hours. It is certainly better than the grid overloading and shutting down completely.

This sophisticated level of management and control also has social impact. Something that is currently seen as a utility to which we pretty much all have basic rights at a common price, becomes auctioned off to the highest bidder. From the other perspective, we have a powerful tool for policy makers to ensure the basic rights of poorer communities to remain thermally comfortable in the summer and winter. Perhaps other usage needs (like powering my plasma TV) go in the luxury category and get 'auctioned' off during peak times.

More granular management and control enables finer tuning in times of limited supply. The creators of the technology are not responsible for how the technology is applied in this regard -- that is a matter for government policy. But it’s great to identify the social sustainability opportunities and promote them as much as we do the environmental sustainability benefits of the technologies that comprise Smart Grid.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Tagging Recycling Bins with RFID Chips

I have heard it said that RFID tags are too expensive for many applications, but apparently they are cost effective for tagging residential recycling bins. As per my mission statement, I am always on the lookout for examples of Information Communications Technology (ICT) services contributing towards environmental sustainability.

One of the benefits of working in the CSR arena in a large corporation is that colleagues send you stuff. One of them did just that - thanks Jim! Jim's trash company, AAA Recycling and Trash Removal Services, in Fairfax County, Virginia, is trialing a service to encourage recycling.

Here is their description of the service:

"Each resident will receive a green 64-gallon wheeled cart, which is equipped with a barcode and radio frequency identification (RFID) chip mounted on the body …Our trucks will be retrofitted to read the RFID chip and weigh the contents of you cart…The amount you recycle will be recorded and converted into RecycleBank Reward Points. Through the web site or via toll free phone access to customer care, these points can be redeemed at hundreds of national and local retailers… .”

It’s an innovative use of technology. We need to be careful of course. We don’t want people ordering more free catalogs in the mail just so they can put more in the recycling for RecycleBank Reward Points. However, if this helps residents ensure they maximize how much of their trash goes in the recycling, I see it as a great contribution of an ICT technology to environmental sustainability.

I am speaking at Front End Innovation in Boston on Monday. I think I have an additional example for my presentation.

More examples of RFID and other residential and consumer applications of ICT in the future.

Server Footprint from SUV to Light Bulb Equivalent in 5 months

The European Commission issued a press release yesterday, “As part of its effort to combat climate change, the European Commission today announced that it would promote the use of ICT (Information and Communications Technologies) to improve energy efficiency throughout the economy, starting with buildings, lighting and the power grid. ICT can enable, across the economy, greener behavior, which would massively cut Europe's carbon footprint if widely deployed. The Commission will encourage the ICT industry to demonstrate leadership in reducing its own CO2 emissions and by identifying and creating solutions that will benefit the whole economy.”

The press release also notes that ”the most advanced computer servers consume the same amount of energy as a standard light bulb.” In the December 2007 report, An Inefficient Truth, it states that "a medium sized server has roughly the same annual carbon footprint as an SUV doing 15 miles per gallon.” From SUV to light bulb is a great efficiency improvement. The sort of order of magnitude of improvement we need to save the planet I think. I will try to get to the bottom of this.

You can read the full release and the 10 page report at the EU web site here.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

How do you know when you are a Sophisticated Sustainability Player?

BT came across an unanticipated conflict a couple of years back between components of our CSR approach. We had commissioned Forum for The Future to conduct a CSR assessment of the impact of our rollout of broadband. Against key dimensions of social sustainability (wellbeing, education, health, etc.) and economic sustainability (digital divide, level playing field for small and medium businesses, etc.) the impact ranged from neutral to positive. But, against the dimension of environmental sustainability they assessed the impact as neutral at best and pretty bad in some cases. This, because broadband had enabled, and to some extent encouraged, our customers to have a slew of equipment that they previously didn’t need and that was ‘always on’. Computers, routers, fancy phones, hubs and modems. You can see the report here.

There are mitigating factors that the report didn’t take into account such as the potential for ICT services to reduce carbon footprint at an order of magnitude significantly greater than the deficit from such services, but lets put those aside for the moment. The report identified an underlying tension between components of our sustainability agenda.

A couple of weeks ago I was speaking with the SVP, Corporate Affairs for Cadbury Americas. There was a bowl of Cadbury chocolate on the table and as a Brit I couldn’t turn down the opportunity of a bite of genuine British made Cadbury chocolate. It was packaged in those dinky little one bite bars (well barely even a bite actually for someone with my appetite for chocolate!). Cadbury Americas has a commitment to a reduction of between 10 and 25% on packaging for different types of product. I asked my counterpart at Cadbury Americas why they didn’t stop making and packaging these smaller bars altogether. (I asked politely of course – they are a customer!). Well, I learned that it is because diet and consumer portion control are a significant component of Cadbury America’s approach to CSR. Hopefully the tension between these two sustainability issues is obvious to the reader. Small bars = good for portion control, larger bars = better for the environment.

Seems to me that it is a sign of a sophisticated approach to sustainability when a company has identified these conflicts and is prepared to discuss and address them internally and externally. Now we need to work out how we balance them correctly. I would be interested in hearing about other such conflicts between different sustainability priorities.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Probably the Worlds Most Environmentally Conscious Telco

IT World Canada has just published an article based on research by Lawrence Surtees, vice-president of communications research and principal analyst at Toronto-based research firm IDC Canada Ltd.

Despite my references below to the complementary comments made by a number of speakers at the CERES Conference on April 30th, Lawrence Surtees describes a different picture when it comes to telcos that I cannot resist highlighting.
"Despite this, North American telcos tend to “lag way behind” European ones in terms of green approaches, and drilling down even further, Canada remains behind the U.S.," he said. "The fact that Canada has abundant hydro is likely a reason carbon footprint reduction is relatively less of a priority," he added.

The U.K.-based company BT PLC – which Surtees described as “probably the world’s most environmentally conscious” telco – has set a goal of deriving more than 60 per cent of electricity from renewable wind energy for all of its U.K.-based operations. It’s a great case of “farsighted thinking and what’s possible today”, thinks Surtees, and it ought to serve as a wake-up call to other telcos especially those in North America.

You can read the whole article here.

Actually Lawrence gives us more credit than we are due. Our wind farms programme is aimed at generating 25 per cent (rather than 60%) of all BT’s energy needs by 2016. That said, it is still the UK’s biggest corporate wind power project outside the energy sector. BT has so far installed eight met masts - meteorological towers that measure the scale and direction of wind to help the planning and deployment of wind farms. They will be in place for up to a year and applications have been submitted for planning permission for many more.

We have reduced our UK carbon footprint by 60% since 1996 and we have an objective to reduce it by 80% by 2016.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Trans-Atlantic Contrasts - Complementary Approaches

Yesterday I spoke at the CERES Conference 2008 in Boston. It was an excellent event. I especially enjoyed a discussion between Andrew Savitz (Triple Bottom Line author), Jeff Swartz (Timberland) and Gary Hirshberg (Stonyfield Farms) that was both entertaining and inspiring.

I spoke on a panel organized jointly between CERES and the British Consulate in Boston. Our topic was the catchy “Operating in a Carbon-constrained Business Environment: US Scenarios, UK lessons”. The panel included Confederation of British Industry (CBI), National Grid, First Climate and University of Massachusetts and was based on responses to the recent CBI climate change task force paper "Climate Change - Everyone's business". I have a pride in what BT and other British companies have achieved in addressing climate change and the panel was made up almost completely of Europeans, however it was notable the extent to which panelists recognized and complemented the contribution of American companies to progress in tackling climate change. In response to a question from the audience on what could be done to make the American Chamber of Commerce and similar organizations as supportive of climate change action as the CBI, Bjorn Fischer of First Climate reminded everyone that carbon emissions trading had been initiated in the USA, and Rhian Chilcott, Director of the Washington Office of the CBI, commented that the focus of American Trade Associations on technology was a welcomed and necessary part of the solution.

I think both continents have a lot to learn from the contrasts. The European emphasis on climate change as the issue and the expectation that we will need to change our behaviors and lifestyles to mitigate. The American emphasis on energy security as the issue and that technology will allow us to tackle the problem while maintaining our lifestyles. As an Brit who has lived in the USA for many years I am sure the right answer will fall somewhere between the two.

You can see a brief summary of the event on the web site of the British Consulate here.