Most discussions of "Green IT" focus only on energy efficiency of data centers. In the following article, Trudy Heller broadens the discussion to include the many ways IT is enabling green solutions.
Sustainability efforts have benefited greatly from information and communication technologies (ICT), a trend expected to continue. Computer systems are infused in all areas of business operations. Hardware and software innovations have enabled the design of industrial systems that use energy and materials more efficiently, help track toxic materials and resources, aid efforts to comply with environmental regulations, and help reduce emissions by enabling people to work remotely.
At the height of the Internet boom, the environmental planning expert Nevin Cohen (1999) predicted that the growth of electronic commerce would lead to the elimination of packaging materials and the demise of the American shopping mall. While these forecasts have so far proved false, Cohen accurately captured the optimism of the time, the feeling that this new technology had the potential to substantially dematerialize our world. Less packaging and fewer trips to the mall would mean fewer raw materials and less energy being consumed in the manufacturing and transport of consumer products—good news for the environment.
The idea and hope that e-commerce would automatically lead to environmental benefits became so discredited that, to many, the ways in which information and communications technologies (ICT) enable sustainable solutions to environmental problems are often hidden from view. (ICT is a term more and more in use as the fields of "information technology" and "communications technology" become one inseparable field.) ICT is enabling greener ways of living and doing business—and helping to dematerialize our world. Although the problems of e-waste are well documented and desperately need to be addressed by manufacturers and consumers alike, the ICT industry is responsible for many of the green solutions that technology has to offer: the energy savings of telecommuting and the technology behind viable renewable energy projects being a few of the most visible examples. These technologies are supporting new business models and changing the way we work. The result is more efficient use of natural resources, better compliance with environmental regulations, and more satisfied consumers.
New Innovations and Business Models
ICT innovations—which have become so pervasive that in some ways it is hard to grasp how much our lives depend on them, and how many businesses run more profitably because of them—include software tools to manage water consumption and tools that help companies conform to new environmental regulations and more radically innovative applications of ICTs that enable new business models. These business models are emerging as people search for ways to use natural resources more sustainably, reduce the materials and energy content of products, and communicate with a younger generation of environmentally conscious consumers.
Cyber Rain, for example, is a software product from California that helps home owners conserve water while maintaining a green lawn. The Cyber Rain program uses wireless technology to check the local weather forecast and adjust sprinkler watering schedules to match daily conditions. As a result, landscapes get just the right amount of water at the right time—saving up to 40 percent of water use and expense over conventional sprinkler systems that operate on a fixed schedule (Cyber Rain 2009).
A new sustainable business model has been catching on that Europeans call "consumption without ownership" (Behrendt et al. 2003). It allows people to use products, or consume them, in a way that is not so damaging to the natural environment; the ICT industry plays a big role in ensuring that the technology available is used to its optimal advantage. For example, car sharing services, in which people rent cars short term for trips to the grocery store or to the doctor, require ICT tools to create online reservations, secure electronic access to cars, track car use with global positioning devices, and bill user accounts in an organized and user-friendly manner. One example of such a service provider is INVERS Mobility Solutions, an international entrepreneurial firm that produces software programs designed for car sharing businesses, enabling the developmentof this ecoservice. In 2009 the World Carshare Consortium identified 1,000 cities worldwide where car sharing services are available (World Carshare Consortium 2009).
Another new business model that is particularly dependent on ICT development involves the shift from companies selling products to offering services as more and more companies find that, as profit margins on their products shrink, the service model is more profitable. Xerox, for example, developed the Office Document Assessment (ODA) tool as part of its Global Services Consulting Division to help clients process documents more efficiently. The Xerox service provider analyzes the workflow in an office and advises clients on the most efficient way to manage the work. Often the recommendation is to use fewer Xerox devices (Rothenberg 2007). In this and many other cases, ICT-enabled services are creating competitive advantage for companies, as well as customer satisfaction (and thus higher profits) and environmental advantages.
Many industrial systems were built at a time when energy and natural resources were plentiful and inexpensive. Conservation and efficiency were not always on the minds of the designers of heating systems, irrigation systems, sprinkler systems, and energy systems. Now, however, ICT applications are adding environmental intelligence to these systems, allowing more efficient use of resources. In July 2009, IBM and Cisco Systems announced a joint pilot project to put " smart" meters into 500 homes in Amsterdam to help homeowners cut energy bills and reduce carbon dioxide emissions (IBM 2009). Smart metering allows home owners to see the amount of electricity they are using and how much it costs. By locating meters in the kitchen, or another convenient place, instead of outside the house where they are rarely seen, residents respond to the feedback the meter provides and decrease their energy use.
Household smart meters influence behavior by providing information about the amount of money spent on electricity rather than the amount of kilowatt-hours used. A measure in the local currency provides a metric of resource use that is more easily understood—especially by people who may not understand exactly what a "kilowatt-hour" is.
Another example of environmental intelligence comes from an Israeli company called Metrolight, which designs smart lighting systems using patented ballast technology and software programs. Metrolight systems allow users to turn individual lights or groups of lights on and off, monitor their status, and create schedules for dimming and maintenance—activities that enable more efficient energy use and cost control. The systems can be controlled remotely via wireless connection or laptop computer, and are marketed for warehouses, shopping malls, gas stations, distribution centers, municipalities, and any other facility that uses lots of lights (Metrolight 2007).
Enabling Renewable Energy
Renewable energy systems are also enabled by ICT. In the North Sea, a giant, floating wind turbine called Hywind uses a computer system to keep its rotor blades pointing in the optimal direction as the tower beneath shifts with the rolling waves. Such tweaking increases the amount of power produced and also makes it possible to operate in a challenging environment without straining the blades and the tower. The software also assesses the success of each attempt to dampen the wave-induced motion so that it can improve in the future (Tilting in the Breeze 2009).
In August 2009, eSolar constructed the Sierra SunTower, a 5-megawatt solar power plant in Lancaster, California, that will provide electricity to 4,000 homes—at a competitive price. Their website describes how the system works:
Key to making the system work is the ability to direct 24,000 mirrors to "track the sun with high precision." This is accomplished through software developed by eSolar employees at a company office seventy-five miles away from the mirror installation.
Greening of the Supply Chain
One of the strategies for greening industry is to limit the use of toxic materials. In 2003, the European Union adoptedthe Restrictions of Hazardous Substances Directive (RoHS), which took effect in 2006. RoHS restricts the use of hazardous materials, including lead, mercury, and cadmium in electronic products (Europa 2009). Compliance with this directive is a complex matter involving the management of thousands of components and ingredients that comprise laptop computers, cell phones, and other electronics. Synapsis Technology Inc. has developed environmental compliance software specifically to aid in manufacturers' efforts to "understand and control the material makeup of their products, and to comply with environmental regulations" (Synapsis Technology Inc. 2009). In a sense thewhole supply chain has become the product that consumers are choosing (Peattie 1999).
Here again, software solutions are assisting companies with the monumental task of tracking the source of all of the ingredients used in their products. For example, consulting company Historic Futures Limited (HF), through its online service String, helps manufacturers and retailers "visualise their entire supply-chain." It does this by collecting and managing Country of Origin (COO) data that includes performance indicators such as product miles (total distance traveled from point of origin to place of consumption), water use, and consumed energy (Historic Futures Limited 2009).
Teleworking, Telecommuting, and Transportation
Another way that ICT is enabling sustainable solutions is through technologies that create business meetings without travel. Air travel for business contributes an estimated 240 billion pounds of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere each year (Westervelt 2008). Even more damaging to the environment, however, are business road trips, given that 81 percent of all business travel is conducted using personal vehicles (Baniewicz, Walker, and Angeles 2009). Video and teleconferencing technologies that can create virtual meetings are providing more environmentally friendly solutions.
Hotels are getting in on this trend. Marriott International and Starwood Hotels are helping business customers avoid travel by renting meeting rooms equipped with "telepresence suites." This ICT technology creates life-size images on a screen to "make participants [who may be on the other side of the world] feel as if they were meeting face to face" (Stellin 2009). Similarly, allowing employees to work from home, using ICT to "telecommute," can reduce a company's carbon footprint. Half of Bell Canada's 40,000 employees telecommute, reducing the company's carbon dioxide emissions by an estimated 7,395 metric tons annually from commuting and space heating (Adams 2007). Technologies such as Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) and "desktop sharing" connect employees at remote sites and allow them to collaborate on work as securely as if they were in the office (Baniewicz, Walker, and Angeles 2009).
For workers who do travel to the office every day, employers are using ICT to minimize single-passenger automobile driving and increase the use of public transportation and car pooling. Stanford University used GIS technology to analyze where employees live and how they travel. They used this information to work with local transit agencies and reduced the "employee drive-alone rate" by 20 percent (Herrera 2008).
The Second "e"
The first e-commerce (e for electronic) transformation, during the Internet boom, integrated ICT into the DNA of business operations so thoroughly that what used to be known separately as "e-commerce" has been absorbed into general "commerce," the electronic part now taken for granted. A second wave of e-commerce (e for environment) is potentially integrating environmental intelligence into the DNA of business operations. Earlier predictions about the "de-malling" of America and paperless offices may have missed the mark, yet this second wave of e-commerce is improving environmental performance of business in several ways: (1) by developing models that emphasize the service side of business and creating incentives to use fewer products and use resources more efficiently; (2) by developing applications that support renewable energy technologies; (3) by providing tools that allow manufacturers to reduce toxins and control environmental damage in supply chains; and (4) by revolutionizing transportation and travel for business and for pleasure. Applying ICT technology, the stage is set for these innovations to continue the greening of industry.