Using the Internet to cut energy needs

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

This article is part of our special report ICT: Fuelling the economy.

The IT sector is under sustained pressure to meet the increasing demand whilst at the same time asked to reduce its carbon footprint, says John Vassallo of Microsoft. How is this conundrum playing out in the EU? And do cloud-based networks and services hold the key to wider EU environmental goals?

John Vassallo is Microsoft vice president for EU Affairs and associate general counsel.

"Information Communication Technology (ICT) is increasingly being recognised as a transformative and enabling tool to reduce energy needs and abate carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions.

To meet the 2050 target of reducing carbon emissions by 80%, we must tackle the worldwide energy consumption of travel and buildings, and embrace new business models that remove the need for energy and material.

At the same time, ICT equipment and services are estimated to double their global carbon emissions to 4% by 2020, requiring 8-10% of electricity consumption in the EU alone. The question our industry and policymakers alike are struggling to answer is how can we ensure our products and services are largely solving, not causing the problem?

Sustainable development also forms a key part of the Europe 2020 strategy, impressing the need for all industries to reduce their carbon footprint. The ICT industry is no exception and can really stand out in its ability to provide technology for itself and the majority of other sectors to reduce the environmental impact of economic growth, particularly through cloud computing – where servers, services and infrastructure are accessed remotely.

The immediate energy savings of migrating to the cloud are not just through less electricity being used, but rather the ability to scale up ICT resources instantly without additional hardware.

Modern cloud data centres are built with energy efficiency in mind, taking advantage of natural air cooling from the local environment and using waste heat where possible to preheat water for residential or commercial purposes. Research revealed that cloud offerings for large businesses (10,000+ users) can reduce energy use and carbon emissions by more than 30%, compared to on-premise deployments. For SMEs with up to 100 users this reduction is more dramatic- it can be more than 90%.

Similarly, another study compared the carbon impact of traditional music delivery (production, shipping and retail of CDs) to digital music delivery. When customers buy music online and download albums directly to their computers, carbon emissions are reduced by up to 80%, as the carbon costs of factory production, transport from studios to shops to households and packaging are all avoided.

Instead of taking advantage of cloud solutions, some organisations are continuing their decades-old practice of overbuilding computer systems due to unfounded worries about hardware failures or system slowdowns due to unexpected user demand. In fact, for large businesses in the US, current studies indicate that 15% of servers remain completely idle- equating to $24.7 billion each globally being wasted on hardware, maintenance, management, energy and cooling!

In the EU, ICT energy efficiencies through cloud computing can be advanced via greater interoperability and standardisation across member states, as currently being implemented through the Digital Agenda.

I believe the next step should be to boost incentives and resources within the single market for businesses and individuals to use ICT as a utility, through centralised services hosted in public or private clouds. The combination of standardised measurement criteria for ICT energy efficiencies and enhanced access to the cloud will focus efforts to help achieve Europe 2020 targets.

To meet the 2050 target of reducing carbon emissions by 80%, a key area that must be tackled is the energy consumption of buildings worldwide, which account for approximately 40 % of carbon emissions. Microsoft’s experience so far demonstrates that a smart building solution can be established with an upfront investment of less than 10% of annual energy expenditure, with an expected payback period of less than two years. By collecting and analysing millions of data samples each day, the company has been able to embark on multiple improvements that are reshaping the way its buildings are managed.

The potential for environmental improvements through cloud computing was highlighted in Durban at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) where three new services to the “Eye on Earth” network were launched, in cooperation with the European Environment Agency (EEA) to provide a cloud-based service for hosting, sharing and discovering data on the environment and promote the principles of “citizen science”.  WaterWatch, AirWatch and NoiseWatch combine the EEA's environmental data with citizen’s feedback to monitor and display water, air and noise quality ratings across Europe.

Also, virtual technologies such as Skype or Lync are powerful and inexpensive tools to avoid travel and make the world a more connected place. Our company in the UK alone reduced air travel by 21% since 2007 using these technologies, verified by the Carbon Trust Standard, and the company as a whole avoided 100 million miles (161 million kilometres) in its last fiscal year, saving 17,000 mtCO2.

While there is no doubt enormous potential for ICT in the future, we like all other sectors in Europe must be conscious of our carbon footprint. The EU should maintain its focus on a Digital Single Market, harmonising its rules on data that will allow communication technologies to flow freely across national boundaries.

My hope for 2012 is that through a coordinated effort between governments, businesses and individuals, the powerful combination of environmental data and energy efficient IT will be realised, prioritised and implemented."

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