Exploring Ways to Reduce IT's Environmental Impact

Exploring Ways to Reduce IT's Environmental Impact

When you think of the phrase "industrial ecology," the latest in information technology is probably not a synonym that comes to mind. But a recent issue of Yale's Journal of Industrial Ecology (JIE) puts that misconception to the test.

Stemming from the widespread applications of ICT in everything from farming to government, JIE set aside an entire issue to looking at how technology and industrial systems can interact. The entire issue, as well as subsequent related articles, is free to the public; below is a short overview of some of the most noteworthy articles from the issue.

In the introduction to the issue, Eric Masanet and H. Scott Matthews write:

Because of its emphasis on the use of system perspectives, industrial ecology is well suited to analysis of both the benefits and impacts of ICT. As a field that seeks to understand -- and pursue -- sustainable production and consumption, often by examining materials and energy flows at different scales, industrial ecology has produced significant research on the intersection of ICT and the environment. This special issue presents research that uses and speaks to several aspects of the field -- life cycle assessment (LCA), ecodesign, industrial symbiosis, and eco-efficiency.

From that starting-point, one of the articles most interesting from a top-level perspective, written by a number of researchers from Sweden's Royal Institute of Technology, puts the amount of greenhouse gas emissions from ICT at 1.3 percent of the world's total carbon footprint. ICT is also responsible for 3.9 percent of global energy use.

The chart below, from the article, lays out the different amounts of emissions each area of ICT is responsible for. No one will be surprised to learn that PC operations and data centers are far and away the biggest culprits on both the energy-use and emissions sides of the equation.

Figure 1

Aside from looking at the cumulative impacts of all the electronic devices at use in the world, the special issue of the JIE also explores how technology can be deployed to improve efficiency and reduce energy costs.

Two articles in the special issue look at residential energy use. The first, by Jihoon Min, Zeke Hausfather and Qi Feng Lin of Efficiency 2.0, lays out a way to precisely measure energy use by zip-code, a level of detail that has not previously been achieved.

The importance of getting as fine of detail as possible on residential energy use stems from the fact that although home energy use represents about 22 percent of all energy use in the country, there is much less known about the residential sector as compared to industrial or commercial energy use.

The second residential-oriented article in the JIE issue, from researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, looks at the potential of nonintrusive load monitoring (NILM) as a way to improve energy audits and identify the amount of energy used by individual units in multi-tenant buildings.

"This form of non-intrusive load monitoring may be able to provide a new type of continuous electrical audit for residential buildings, down to the appliance level," Mario Berges said in a press release from the JIE's publisher. "While costs can only be estimated at this point, it is possible that the price of such a system could be similar to that of the whole-house meters currently available on the market, approximately $200 per residence."

Although there are of course huge benefits to be had from incorporating energy efficiency into the everyday lives of individuals and families across the country, a relatively neglected portion of the business universe in the U.S. could offer significantly greater benefits.

A survey by Eric Masanet, the Deputy Leader of the International Energy Studies Group at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, looks at more than 25,000 installations of electronic control systems -- which optimize the performance of machines, heating, cooling and ventilation -- at small- to medium-sized manufacturers in the United States over the last 15 years.

By combing through a database of those projects compiled by the U.S. Department of Energy, Masanet was able to gauge the impacts of energy efficiency projects at a category of manufacturers that, despite being an often overlooked element of the domestic industrial sector, represents 90 percent of all U.S. industrial plants.

Masanet's findings are stark, and eye-opening:

The average annual primary energy savings per installation for all controls was around 1,500 MMBtu/year. For perspective, consider that this savings in energy is equivalent to upgrading 1,400 refrigerators to the most efficient models, or to replacing 2,150 incandescent with compact fluorescent lamps in the average U.S. home (U.S. EPA 2010). It is also equivalent to doubling the fuel economy of 20 average U.S. passenger vehicles (from around 25 mpg for a standard mid-sized auto to 50 mpg for an efficient hybrid). In other words, the average control system installation at a U.S. SME may result in energy savings that it would take tens to thousands of U.S. household technology installations to achieve.

Although there are a number of other solid reports in this special issue of the JIE, I'd like to highlight just one more, which was actually published prior to Volume 14, Issue 5, but which is collected under the rubric of green IT research on that issue's table of contents.

The research is a different take on the energy impacts of IT, researched and written by researchers at Carnegie Mellon and Yale, that looks beyond the energy used by computing equipment to explore the question of downloading music is greener than buying a CD.

Even though by all accounts the market for CDs, and CD-retailing stores, has long been on the wane, digital music proponents have often touted the dematerialization benefits of moving from resource-intensive (and shipping-intensive) plastic CDs to MP3 downloads.

The article in the JIE traces music -- in physical and digital format -- from the recording stage or studio to the CD or MP3 player. In short, the authors write:

There are clear potential energy and GHG savings from delivering music digitally, as opposed to the typical supply chain of the past: the energy and emissions associated with producing the CD and packaging it, as well as the transportation chain to deliver this good. These savings are offset, however, by the energy and emissions associated with network and data center usage to deliver the music digitally, as well as those of recordable media and media storage if the user burns music to a CD.

The research looks at six scenarios for music recording and delivery:

• 1. album published on CD and delivered by traditional retail methods
• 2. album published on CD and delivered by light-duty truck through an online e-tail provider
• 3. album published on CD and delivered by express air through an online e-tail provider
• 4. album downloaded as MP3 or MP4 files from an online music service and used digitally
• 5. album downloaded as MP3 or MP4 files from an online music service and burned to CD-R for digital and CD use (no CD packaging)
• 6. album downloaded as MP3 or MP4 files from an online music service, burned to CD-R for digital and CD use, and stored in individual CD packaging (i.e., slimline jewel cases)

And the researchers find that yes, digital music has a significantly lower footprint than any other method; even digital music that is then burned to a CD is less energy- and carbon-intensive than buying a disc at your local, soon-to-be-defunct Borders or having a disc shipped to you by Amazon. The chart below spells out the impacts of each method.

Figure 2

There you have it. In much more than a nutshell, an overview of the Journal of Industrial Ecology's Green ICT issue. There continue to be follow-up articles posted to the journal, including research on a new approach to e-waste takeback, and a look at an alternative method for comparing the "greenness" of electronics.