The bicycle is a quintessentially clean form of transport. But researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have made it cleaner still.
The Copenhagen Wheel, developed by MIT’s SENSE¬able City Lab, allows riders not only to save energy produced while cycling and braking for later use (on uphill journeys, for instance); a bike retrofitted with the wheel also collects data on local environmental conditions.
This is just one example of how technology is providing information that can help us reduce our impact on the planet.
As the Copenhagen Wheel demonstrates, anything connected to sensors and software can become an intelligent instrument, measuring everything from carbon emissions to water consumption.
“Technology is going to be a game changer,” says Laura Ipsen, senior vice-president and general manager of Cisco Systems’ Connected Energy group.
“The only way we can make smart changes to our planet is by using technology to manage, monitor and control … natural resources.”
The energy sector is ripe for this kind of transformation. Smart meters enable companies and consumers to collect detailed data on energy use and reduce their consumption – as well as their carbon footprint.
IT will also allow power utilities to operate demand-led energy management and offer flexible pricing mechanisms that will prompt greater efficiencies.
Other business opportunities exist in creating products such as bundling different energy services.
“With electric vehicles, you could have a maintenance agreement that would include cost of power, or a battery leasing agreement with the cost of power behind it,” says Darrin Hill, energy expert at PA Consulting Group.
The question is whether IT can do all this fast enough.
In the energy sector, industry is playing catch-up after decades in which power has been managed across infrastructure little changed in more than a century, delivering one-way flows of electricity that users cannot monitor or control.
Meanwhile, companies face organisational obstacles, with departments responsible for paying electricity bills not necessarily communicating with the purchasing units that buy machines consuming the energy.
“Until you have a centralisation of control and authority around energy management, you’re not going to be able to have strategic energy management,” says David Metcalfe, director of Verdantix, a research company.
Mr Metcalfe believes IT provides an opportunity for companies to start centralising this control. “Technology enables a more global approach,” he says.
IT is also an important tool in measuring corporate consumption of not only energy but also other resources.
Software and databases mean companies no longer have to work in the dark when assessing their environmental impact, as well as their exposure to environmental risk.
For large consumers of water, such as those in the drinks industry, remote sensors combined with flow meters help monitor leaks and establish a consumption baseline from which to set reduction goals.
Meanwhile, advanced geospatial analytics aggregate data on global water consumption, allowing companies to assess their exposure to water shortages.
For big multinationals, technology helps make sense of an otherwise unmanageable mass of data. This is important both for internal resource management and external reporting.
David Walker, director of environmental sustainability at PepsiCo, says: “When you have this much data being collected from so many sites around the world, it presents a challenge to meet corporate audit requirements and financial-level requirements that sustainability is demanding.” The group has established a single database, so staff anywhere can upload data on energy, water, solid waste and other sustainability every month.
The greater efficiencies IT facilitates also generate cost savings.
Since the deployment of route planning technology in 2004, the CO2 reductions made by UPS, the logistics company, equate to taking 5,300 passenger cars off the road for a year – cutting fuel costs in the process, with savings of 10m gallons of petrol.
Web technology helps save carbon emissions in another way, too – by matchmaking.
An online transport marketplace called uShip helps logistics companies run fewer trucks partially full or empty after making their deliveries.
It connects shipping customers with transporters that are making a trip and have extra space in their vehicles. The company’s software also allows users to offset the carbon emissions created by their deliveries.
Of course, an even more fuel-efficient strategy would be not to make the trip at all. And while goods will always need delivering, technology is helping reduce the number of people that need to be moved around.
As the usability of telepresence and other videoconferencing systems has improved, executives have found it easier to reduce the business trips they make.
In a recent study from WWF, the conservation body, more than 60 per cent of respondents used videoconferencing regularly, with most saying this had an impact in cutting air travel.
The reduction in flights because of videoconferencing – as opposed to measures such as corporate travel policies – was about 12 per cent.
Of course, IT also has its own footprint. For a start, it generates large amounts of electrical waste.
In Europe, rules govern management of this waste, with manufacturers and retailers required to organise collection and disposal of electronic equipment at the end of its life.
Even so, implementation of the EU’s Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment directive has proved challenging, as collection inefficiencies and inequities in the system persist.
IT is also an energy consumer. Research indicates the industry contributes up to 3 per cent of global CO2 emissions through data centres, servers, mobile devices and desktop computers.
Companies can make a dent in this by buying more efficient equipment, switching off machines when not in use, moving applications into the cloud and using virtualisation technology, which squeezes several applications on to a single server.
Yet, compared with the buildings sector, the IT industry’s footprint is relatively small. Buildings are thought to contribute some 40 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Here, modelling and design software has the potential to accelerate the move to more resource efficiency that makes greater use of renewable energy and natural light and ventilation.
For new buildings, technology can produce remarkable efficiencies. The bigger challenge is retrofitting older buildings – the bulk of the world’s building stock. IT allows designers to model virtually a range of changes and assess which improvements would have the greatest impact on energy use.
The role of software in retrofitting reflects the broader role for IT in promoting sustainability – the use of digital information to improve the management of existing global infrastructure.
Take renewable energies such as solar and wind power, which are intermittent in their nature.
“Technology is critical in integrating those renewable sources into a grid that wasn’t built for that power,” says Michael Valocchi, energy and utilities industry leader for IBM’s Global Business Services unit.
Of course, with the aid of digital design systems, IT is also important in creating new products and services with smaller environmental footprints.
However, whether mapping water leaks, integrating renewables into the grid, remodelling buildings to generate efficiencies, or fixing a smart wheel on to a bicycle, the challenge is not only to design products that are more resource-efficient – it is also to apply intelligence to existing systems.
In short, IT has the potential to bring about a giant sustainability retrofit of the world.
Read the article on the Financial Times – FT.com.