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Friday, October 31, 2008

Sustainability on the Road

I have just returned from attending and speaking at the CRO/Sustainpro fall conference in Chicago. Some great speakers were there including Dr. Peter Diamandis, founder of the X-Prize, and T. Boone Pickens. I particularly appreciated that the conveners, Jay Whitehead and Elliot Clark, used a quick fire Q&A approach that kept panelists on their toes and maintained the momentum.

As many of my readers are in the ICT space, I will note that T. Boone Pickens attended by video link. The sound quality was not perfect but I thought his presence on a big screen was superior to him being at a distant podium and more than compensated for the sound issues.

My panel included the sustainability/CSR officers from MacDonald's, IBM, FedEx, Orbitz and Campbell Soup. We addressed broader issues including the impact of the current economic crisis, European/US contrasts, what we hope for from the next administration and where sustainability is going next. I heard consensus around most issues, including that the economic downturn reinforces the importance of sustainability and the need to move our focus more onto the longer term.

On the topic of transatlantic differences, I was asked what might help US companies catch up given the estimate by CRO magazine that they are 3-5 years behind British and European companies in sustainability. I did not fully accept the premise that US companies are behind. On the social sustainability front, there are significantly different approaches, but I would argue that neither is behind nor ahead. On the environmental front, while I agreed UK and European countries were doing things 3-5 years ago that American companies (generalizing) are doing only now, I don’t think that means it takes that long to catch up. I see UK and European companies more likely to accentuate climate change as their rationale for taking action on energy than their counterparts in the USA - which accentuate energy efficiency. As I noted in my post "The Objectives Matter", I think stated reasons for taking action on energy make a difference to the specific actions taken.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

What Does the Financial Crisis Mean for Climate Change?

The current financial crisis has clearly taken policy attention and resources away from what might otherwise have been focused on addressing climate change. However, deceleration in spending will probably have a bigger impact in the short term on reducing carbon emissions and other excesses than any other action. But, an either/or situation is not what we need. We need to be able to take sustainability action while continuing to support economic growth.

So how does the global response to the economic downturn indicate possible responses to climate change at this policy level?

I am encouraged by the extent to which the country and the international community has acted cooperatively in response to the current crisis. However, while both the financial downturn and environmental sustainability challenges have global interrelationship in common, they are very different in another way.

The impact of the financial crisis on individuals was pretty immediate and hopefully reversible. There is a strong vision of what an attractive (read; wealthy) future looks like. In contrast, the biggest challenges facing concerted action on energy and climate change is that it is likely to be irreversible and catastrophic by the time the true consequences become readily apparent to the layman. Right now the impact is not really visible to most people and strong visions of an attractive (read; enhanced lifestyle) low carbon future are less apparent so the support for government action is limited.

I think the most important factor is whether the concerted cooperation and action on the financial crisis can be leveraged to overcome this challenge and become a precursor for strong and determined global action on climate change. Or have we just used up a limited supply of cooperative feeling, which together with the remaining financial challenges ahead, will delay the onset of our willingness to tackle climate change. Of course, I hope the former is the case and this crisis will prove to have been the model for what the global community can do by working together. A positive outcome for sustainability.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Gartner’s new green IT vendors report

Both Neal Weinberg at Network World and Larry Dignan at ZDNet have reported BT’s inclusion in a Gartner report on the greenest IT vendors worldwide. The reports are based on Simon Mingay’s presentation at the Gartner Symposium ITxpo. According to Neal’s report, BT scored the highest of any global company. I think global in that context means non-US headquartered as I suspect IBM and HP, to name but a few, consider themselves to be pretty global too. Larry simply names BT as a participating vendor and reports that a number of vendors declined to participate. I don’t think I see any specific pattern looking over the list. The Gartner report is not out yet. But I am hoping to get sight of a copy and will comment on it when I do.

Monday, October 27, 2008

False Economies

Cynics say that corporate sustainability strategies are all very well when times are good. But, they ask, how long will firms continue these policies now that the financial downturn is hitting us harder? Actually, I believe these strategies becomes more, not less important. I've recently written an article on this topic for Read more here.

Also, you may want to check out my previous post, Is the Economic Downturn Good or Bad for Sustainability?

Friday, October 24, 2008

Momentum on the Sunny Side

Much of the recent work has been on foundations, but our solar installation made visible progress above ground level yesterday. Many of the concrete pillars that are going to support the trackers above the parking lot were installed. If you are thinking of doing something similar and you want to see how it looks in real life go to our webcam at Hit ‘animation viewer’ and then (if you are reading this post on October 24th) hit the ‘previous day’ link to watch the columns go in. I will post again when the beams and then the pv’s themselves are installed.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Is the Economic Downturn Good or Bad for Sustainability?

When the economy takes a dive, companies take a serious look at their resources and cut down on non-essential spending. Will sustainability programs be considered as an area to cut back on?

The value of sustainability programs are clear - reduced energy costs, increased productivity and efficiencies. I believe companies that are serious about sustainability will continue, if not step up, their focus. At BT, being green has reduced our energy costs, especially so when it comes to energy efficiency, and increased our energy security – so why wouldn’t we step up our efforts? The corporate customers I work with see the same benefits.

At a more strategic level, it is important to consider the impact this crisis will have on the willingness of shareholders to take a longer term perspective of corporate success. Whether considering social or environmental sustainability, I have always felt that taking only a short term perspective on investment is generally to the detriment of substantive sustainability strategies. Just the term ‘sustainability’ really says it all. I believe long-term sustainability initiatives reap true value for a company and its investors.

So a key question is will this economic downturn will act as a catalyst for investors to take a longer term view that gives more support to sustainable practices in the companies in which they invest? In my mind the jury is out on this one. I welcome your thoughts on the topic.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Energy Efficiency, Energy Security or Climate Change – The Objectives Matter

Common wisdom has it that the environmental sustainability case needs to be presented differently in different regions. It is all a means to the same end. Climate change is a good lead in Europe, but energy security needs to be the lead play in the USA and energy efficiency in China. I agree, but only to a point.

The three objectives have different end games. For climate change it is climate stabilization at safe levels. For energy security it is a level of independence from outside sources. For energy efficiency it has to come down to a cost benefit. I could certainly envisage countries that can achieve energy independence and cost effective energy efficiency without us achieving climate change stabilization – perhaps even the USA. Some say that doesn’t matter in the short term as long as action is being taken, but I think it can make a significant difference to operational decisions too.

The data center manager being guided only by energy efficiency is not going to consider alternative energy sources unless they are significantly less expensive and easier to manage. And if energy prices drop in the short term the main driver for action is removed.

The data center manager being guided only by energy security may not pay due attention to efficiency, but may be willing to pay a premium for alternative on-site sources (low carbon or otherwise) for resiliency of supply.

The data center manager being guided only by a carbon reduction objective may jump straight to renewables (or simply resort to offsets) without paying due attention to energy efficiency.

The most complete response will come from a climate change objective. And the proper response is first to address energy efficiency and then low carbon energy sources. Climate change objectives also demand consideration be given to data center location to ensure low carbon grid energy and take into account the future effects of climate change by avoiding regions where flooding or temperature rise is anticipated.

The CIO and the IT team should be clear on why they are taking action on energy usage as the first step in building their plan.

Monday, October 6, 2008

A Week Where Solar was in the Ascendant

From my perspective, last week was a good week for the sun.

We are in the process of picking vendors for a BT Americas employee solar program. As recently as last Wednesday, conversations with the short listed vendors reflected the prevailing view that the expired Investment Tax Credit (ITC) would not be renewed until some time next year. ITC offers residential solar customers an offset against income tax. By Friday morning, the credits were not only renewed, but were significantly expanded as part of the bailout bill signed into law.

Meanwhile, despite the economic situation facing the country, both the key providers in our corporate implementation at our head office in El Segundo were the beneficiaries of major investments. Our integrator, EI Solutions was acquired by Suntech, one of the largest solar panel manufacturers in the world and our finance provider, Solar Power Partners (SPP), announced that it has closed $100M in financing and all this before the ITC extension was announced on Friday morning.

Visible construction began on the installation in our headquarters parking lot (previous work was below ground on the foundations). You can see it here. Select ‘previous week’ in the ‘animation viewer’ to see the supporting pillars going in at the far end of the lot towards the end of the animation.

And closer to home (my home at least), was the annual Metro Washington DC tour of Solar Homes. We are certainly no California, but it was an impressive event with over 50 homes displayed in Maryland, Virginia and DC over two days. I visited a couple of the houses in Virginia where there were dozens of people walking through. Some were clearly dedicated environmentalists, but many regular folks attended who are starting to consider solar for their homes and wanted to see it in practice.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

How Many Mobile Phone Users Does it Take to Power a Light Bulb?

It depends on the screen technology and the type of light bulb.

I spoke at the Green ICT Workshop of the European American Business Council last week. The main theme was how the role of ICT in the environment should inform government policy. It was interesting being in a forum that included both European and American perspectives. Although there are some contrasts in approach, the overwhelming sense was of the common ground of the potential for the industry to help drive energy efficiency and reduce emissions.

In the process, speakers shared some interesting statistics that show how much potential there is for our industry to continually reduce emissions. For example, Jennifer Sanford of Cisco noted that the carbon emissions of a single plane flight are equivalent to 97 telepresence sessions.

What about the mobile phone users to whom I first referred?

Asfaw Negeri from Ericsson said that today’s mobile phones produce about 24kg of CO2 per year – already a significant order of magnitude decrease on older generations of handsets, and forecast to continue decreasing. 24kg CO2 for the year is about the same as driving a mid-sized car for an hour.

Cheryl Schwartzman, speaking for Qualcomm, described one way some of those future reductions might be achieved. Their new Mirasol display screens for mobile phones and hand-held devices consume 1mW to operate, compared with 240 mW for the standard screens that we have on our phones today. Cheryl explained that screens are such a significant part of the drain on displays that the benefits can increase battery life by 30%.

And where do the light bulbs come into it ?

Bill Morin from Applied Materials referred to the potential future energy reductions from LED-based light bulbs, according to the Next-Generation Lighting Industry Alliance. LEDs are anticipated to be twice as efficient as even CFLs.

Loads of potential from known technologies, let alone from what is yet to come.