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Powering the future
Transforming energy use, energy generation and carbon management through information and communication technologies
image
photo credit: Microsoft
Anoop Gupta
Corporate Vice President,
Technology Policy and Strategy,
Microsoft Corporation, United States

At Microsoft, we see information and communication technologies (ICT) as a key tool to help address the daunting energy and climate challenges the world faces. Microsoft envisions a clean energy ecosystem where information technology:

  • Empowers people and organizations with software tools that help increase energy efficiency.

  • Accelerates innovation and deployment of clean energy sources.

This vision is increasingly shared by environmental organizations, government policy-makers and industry leaders. As a recent climate report by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)1 noted, “there is probably no other sector where the opportunity to provide solutions with dramatic emission reduction potential is as significant” as in the ICT sector. A recent study by the consultancy McKinsey & Company found that using ICT, society can eliminate 7.8 gigatons of carbon emissions annually by 2020, an amount greater than is currently released by all sources in the United States.

As a foundation for these contributions, the ICT industry must work to increase the computing output and ICT solutions available to society, while holding down its own energy use and carbon footprint. Advances in hardware and software have dramatically increased the energy efficiency of computing. The leading energy-efficient laptops now entering the market use less energy than a single compact fluorescent light bulb. However, with more than 1 billion computers on the planet and 250 million new laptops, desktops and servers deployed each year, the ICT industry must continue improving the energy efficiency of its products.

Beyond reducing our own footprint, however, the ICT industry has unique contributions to make to environmental sustainability. ICT are unique in their ability to enable individuals, communities, organizations, scientists and policy-makers to assess and understand the impact of their actions across complex systems. Solutions that combine the power of high-performance, cloud-based computing with broadly available technologies (such as mobile phones and personal computers) can enable individuals and organizations to take action that reduces effects on society and the planet.

ICT can play a critical role in enabling emission reductions in a wide range of sectors, from building management to telecommuting, without dramatic breakthroughs in new technology. A recent WWF study* found that increasing virtual meetings and telecommuting could eliminate more than 3 billion tons of CO2 emissions over the next few decades. “A webcam-equipped laptop and mobile and wireless connectivity, as well as effective and secure software, are the key technical requirements for teleworking,” the study noted. “These solutions already exist, and the sooner a broad deployment can take place the faster significant reductions can be achieved.” In our own experience at Microsoft, we found that by encouraging employees to use our unified communications telework tools in place of travel, we reduced travel per employee by 10 per cent in the fiscal year 2008, eliminating 100 million miles of air travel and 17 000 metric tons of CO2 emissions.

The power of software combined with increasingly smart appliances and inexpensive sensors can also make an important difference in how people understand and change their energy use at home. A critical first step is to provide households with a real-time view of their energy use, as opposed to feedback from utility bills that lag by a month or more. We envision easy-to-use “control panels” on home computers and mobile phones that let people manage their household appliances, heat and lighting from any location. Ultimately, intelligent control systems will optimize home energy use based on the weather reports and a host of other factors. Such systems could, for example, sense your location from your mobile phone and begin heating or cooling your house as you begin your commute home.

One of the ways Microsoft is working to offer solutions to address residential energy use is through a free online cloud-based application called Microsoft® Hohm™ that enables consumers to better understand their energy usage. Hohm provides consumers with personalized energy savings recommendations, and we are partnering with utilities to provide automated data feeds that enable users to analyse their energy consumption and track improvements.

A long-term sustainable energy future will require a transition to zero-carbon energy sources over the next 20 years. ICT have a key role to play in enabling this transition, from supporting breakthroughs in energy research to managing an increasingly distributed set of energy sources feeding into the electrical grid.

One challenge we face using renewable sources of energy is that their availability is intermittent: the sun does not always shine and the wind does not always blow. ICT can help smooth these energy fluctuations by enabling demand elasticity — shifting demand from when electricity is scarce and expensive to times when it is more available and cheaper — at the scales needed to integrate renewable energy sources into the grid. ICT-enabled appliances, combined with smart meters and informed consumers, can shift energy demand from non-time-sensitive uses to periods of peak wind or solar generation. The growth potential of plug-in electric vehicles makes the issue of demand elasticity particularly important. Ford Motor Company recently took steps to address this issue with a pilot version of a vehicle-to-electric grid communications and control system that enables vehicle operators to program when to recharge their vehicle, for how long and at what utility rate.

Software is helping scientists model and perfect cleaner energy sources. For example, complex data-intensive modelling, called computational fluid dynamics, has significantly improved the design and placement of wind turbines to maximize their generation efficiency. Scientists are using computer modelling to design improved alloys for solar photovoltaic cells. Researchers at the San Diego Supercomputer Center have created models of “virtual molecules” to study how to speed reactions that can produce cellulosic ethanol from farm waste, and researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, are applying computer modelling to improve the efficiency of hydrogen fuel cells.

Finally, transitioning to a clean energy economy requires the ability to track and manage emissions by organization, by geography, and potentially by individual products across their supply chain and lifecycle. ICT tools that support this capability will allow organizations to set carbon reduction goals and track their progress, and consumers to choose which products or services they buy based on a business’s carbon footprint. In support, Microsft has added a new Environmental Sustainability Dashboard to the Microsoft Dynamics® AX enterprise resource planning system to allow small and medium-sized businesses to measure and manage their carbon footprint using data from their utility bills. Together with the Clinton Climate Initiative, we provide a free Webbased tool that enables the world’s largest cities to monitor and reduce their greenhouse-gas emissions. Microsoft is also collaborating with the Carbon Disclosure Project, an independent not-for-profit organization that holds the world’s largest database of corporate climate change information, to enable companies to report this information in a more detailed and standardized way.

To fully optimize the contribution that ICT can make to a sustainable energy economy, policy-makers should seek ways to:

  • Lead by example
    Governments can help save energy and benefit the environment by applying power management and virtualization to their ICT infrastructure and by promoting telework. These initiatives can yield significant cost savings and efficiency gains, while demonstrating best practice and helping build the market for ICT solutions that reduce energy use.

  • Invest in basic research, enabling infrastructure and new technologies
    Governments need to adequately fund basic scientific research and research into renewable and sustainable low-carbon energy sources. Governments can leverage the power of cloud computing by subsidizing infrastructure, such as the wide-scale broadband connectivity and broad deployment of smart meters necessary for many ICT-enabled energy solutions.

  • Reform energy regulations to foster demand-side management
    Regulators who oversee energy generation and distribution should consider adopting real-time pricing policies that open the market for demand-side management. Ensuring that individuals and third parties have access to energy usage and pricing information, subject to appropriate privacy protections, will spark innovation as businesses compete to use these data and drive reductions in energy and CO2.

  • Promote broadly accessible solutions
    A sustainable energy ecosystem should seek to harness the power of widely available technologies such as those for mobile phones and personal computers. Policies to promote connectivity and broadband access help to enable wide participation in a sustainable energy ecosystem. To foster innovation, policy-makers should ensure that smart grids and other energy and environmental ICT applications promote security, privacy and interoperability, without mandating the use of specific technologies.

Achieving long-term growth that is economically and environmentally sustainable will require dramatic shifts in our energy ecosystem. We believe that ICT have a vital role to play in enabling these shifts, by allowing economies to operate far more efficiently and by accelerating the innovation needed to reach the next generation of renewable zero-carbon energy sources. The world’s most powerful supercomputers and broadly available existing technologies all have a role to play in enabling a clean energy ecosystem.

About the author

Anoop Gupta guides Microsoft’s engagement with governments and institutions around the world regarding the company’s vision of upcoming technology innovations and the policies and regulations that might maximize their benefits for citizens. From 2007 to 2009, he served as corporate vice president of the Unlimited Potential Group and Education Products, following four years as vice president of the Unified Communications Group. Before this, he was technology assistant to Bill Gates, Microsoft’s Chairman.

Mr Gupta was a professor of computer science and electrical engineering at Stanford University for 11 years prior to joining Microsoft in 1997. He has published more than 100 research papers and has contributed to more than 50 patents. Mr Gupta received his Ph.D. in computer science from Carnegie Mellon University in 1986. He holds a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi.


1 Outline for the First Global IT Strategy for CO2 Reductions”: WWF, 2008.

2 From workplace to anyplace”: WWF, 2009.

 

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