Information technology's seemingly unquenchable thirst for energy has been well established. But when you add up all of information and communication technology's energy footprint -- the increasing need for computational power, data storage and communications -- it amounts to about 2 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, growing to 3 percent by 2020, according to McKinsey & Co. That's non-trivial, of course, but there's a countervailing force to consider: the potential for information technology to make the world far more energy-efficient, and to address some of the world's other pressing environmental and social problems.
At least, that's the story some of the largest IT companies are telling. And they're backing it up with a seemingly impressive array of capabilities to make the world not just more efficient, but to make it better.
One way IT can have a big impact is by replacing carbon-intensive activities with much more efficient and less-energy-intensive technologies. Well-established examples include the use of telepresence and virtual meetings to replace conventional business travel (something that will become increasingly common as Cisco expands its TelePresence program and HP launches a desktop telepresence program) and using secure networks and virtual meeting technologies to allow employees to work remotely.
A host of companies large and small offered up software solutions in 2009 to help consumers and businesses monitor their energy use. Google and Microsoft, for example, each launched its own home energy solution -- Google's PowerMeter and Microsoft's Hohm. Tririga launched a software line designed to help large organizations measure, manage and reduce greenhouse gas emissions in their real estate holdings. Energy management startup Hara Software entered the market with a software-as-a-service corporate application that enables companies to track their use of resources, energy efficiency and emissions systemwide -- and take steps to reduce them. Webcor Builders, one of the largest contractors in California, and Climate Earth, a greenhouse gas accounting firm, joined forces to develop a database of the greenhouse gas emissions embedded in construction materials to help design buildings with smaller carbon footprints.
Google, Tririga, Hara and the others are part of a much larger group of companies eyeing a largely untapped opportunity. According to a study by IFS North America, the vast majority of manufacturers do not have the software technology in place to manage their environmental footprints. The study revealed that almost half of manufacturers lacked the enterprise technology to manage their environmental footprint at all, and another 28 percent had only limited capabilities.
IT's salutary impact is not just about energy. For example, Microsoft is focusing on accelerating breakthrough solutions to environmental challenges. In one project, Microsoft research shows how specific groups of trees interact with one another and the environment and whether and how tree species will need to migrate in a warming climate. Research shows that a new generation of realistic forest computer modeling could greatly improve our understanding of how forests work, how tree species respond to deforestation, and how forests impact climate regulation and environmental change.
Perhaps no one has articulated the scope of the opportunity better than IBM, whose Smarter Planet campaign went into full gear in 2009. That campaign aims to showcase Big Blue's technology and competency in a wide range of fields -- retail, buildings, healthcare, government, banking, education, food and more -- including how it leverages IT solutions with consulting and other services. During the year, IBM launched a Sustainable Supplier Information Management Consulting service to help companies collect supply chain data such as energy use, labor practices and greenhouse gas emissions; launched a line of services and research called Strategic Water Information Management to work with utilities, government agencies and businesses in managing water consumption; and implemented these and other solutions globally -- managing everything from smart grids to urban congestion.
These aren't simply a matter of doing good things for the world -- they're enormous business opportunities. If IBM and its IT brethren can successfully deploy their technologies to propagate breakthrough infrastructure solutions (while simultaneously reducing their own footprints), they'll be well placed to tap the many trillion-dollar markets that await them. Smarter, indeed.
Return to green news headlines
View Green News Archive