Digital tools to help reduce your firm’s carbon footprint (part 2)
It’s clear that in the world’s quest to reach net zero, all eyes are on President Biden and the US’s landmark Inflation Reduction Act, which is pledging billions to invest in green technology, green energy and green jobs.
The UK’s reaction to Biden’s hard fought green deal has been divided – mainly along political lines.
Ahead of the UK Government’s revised net carbon emission strategy on Thursday, UK opposition party Labour has urged ministers to deliver a growth plan of a similar nature to Biden’s – but Tory leaders don’t seem keen on some aspects of the act, with the trade minister Kemi Badenoch branding the subsidies on offer to US firms as ‘protectionist’ and anti-trade.
Whatever the outcome of Thursday’s strategy, an investment in green technology and cleaner energy sources appears to be something all sides agree on.
While many deep tech ideas are still in development, this week we bring you the second of our two-part green tech digital tools deep dive, which examines existing software tools and IT services that might be worth investing in to help ‘green’ enterprises’ operations.
If you missed part 1, you can catch up here.
APIs are a key means by which companies can easily and quickly add a variety of software apps across their systems.
So-called Green APIs are built with the intent of advancing sustainability, environmental awareness, or specific climate action initiatives. In an increasingly internet connected world the use of them can provide the ‘glue’ joining disparate data silos together.
Green APIs, for instance, can help monitor air and water quality, expose carbon emissions data and enable smart connections for analysis.
“APIs play a critical role by enabling the growth of distributed generation technologies such as solar by accessing rate and incentive calculators, solar resource data, to streamline quoting and sales, and by making it possible to integrate incentive and interconnection application processes,” says Heather Van Schoiack, a senior marketing manager for Clean Power Research.
The Clean Power Research group suite of APIs include the PowerBill API for analysing energy value, and the Clean Power Estimator for financial analysis of solar projects.
Clean Power’s SolarAnywhere API, for instance, provides irradiance data (sunlight predictions based off geographic positioning) to be integrated into applications that encourage solar alternatives.
Another Green API go-to is the Green Web Foundation, a Dutch non-profit pushing for a ‘fossil-free’ internet infrastructure from data centres to web hosting. Its API allows developers to update information about the digital infrastructure a company is using, the services it provides to others, and to see the status of providers in their own supply chain.
The easiest way for many companies to improve their carbon footprint is to move their IT systems to the cloud. “It’s the equivalent of joining a carpool or using public transport, rather than using their own vehicles,” describes Ashish Arora, VP, Cloud and Infrastructure Services at Indian IT consultancy HCLTech. “Having your own servers on-premises requires hardware, facilities equipped with power supplies and cooling units to avoid overheating.”
AWS estimates that this can reduce carbon emissions by as much as 88% compared to on-premise systems that are inefficiently utilised and need constant cooling.
Analyst IDC estimates that cloud computing could eliminate a billion metric tons of CO2 emissions by the end of 2024. This is because cloud-based services are hosted at much larger data centres which use newer, more energy efficient hardware, and have carbon reduction measures in place. Cloud providers also use high, and increasing, proportions of emission free energy.
Google has been vocal about the progress it has made, claiming to be the first organisation of its size to operate with 100% renewable energy. Google’s data centres run on wind farms and solar panels, and AI/ML are used to adjust cooling technologies to ensure servers are protected, but also that energy is not wasted.
By 2030 Microsoft aims to be carbon negative, and by 2050 it has pledged to remove from the environment all the carbon the company has emitted either directly or by electrical consumption since it was founded in 1975. Cloud is one of the steps such progress will be made.
AWS data centres in Virginia meanwhile, account for almost three quarters of the world’s internet traffic and Amazon says all its facilities will be powered by renewable sources by 2025. It has also pledged to reach net-zero carbon across its entire business by 2040.
However, there are concerns companies might be downgrading their commitments because they feel that moving to the cloud ticks their ‘green’ box: a digital leadership report found that surprisingly few leaders in the UK (22%) were electing to use tech to measure their carbon footprint.
“Simply moving from an on-premises virtualised infrastructure to a [cloud] vendor’s hypervisor will not accomplish this goal,” says W. Curtis Preston, chief technical evangelist at data-protection-as-a-service provider Druva.
“While you may move the problem of power acquisition to a different entity you don’t remove it altogether.”
An alternative, he says, is for companies to “refactor on-premises applications” to make use of on-demand infrastructure (on-demand VMs, containers and serverless applications, for instance), and reduce overall power consumption, while also reducing overall IT spend: “If enough organisations did this, it could make a real dent in the power crisis,” Preston adds.
Tools like GreenOps from Cycloid also help organisations improve the sustainability of their cloud infrastructure by automating the process of turning servers on and off when not in use.
Digital waste monitors
According to the Global E-waste Monitor 2020, 54 million metric tonnes of e-waste was produced in 2019 and it is projected to reach 74.7m by 2030. Governments are cracking down on illegal waste exports through stricter background checks and compulsory digital waste tracking.
Legislation in the UK’s Environmental Act 2021 requires that firms record information from the point waste is produced to the stage it is disposed of, recycled and reused.
Data analytics platform Topolytics is one of the firms that has won funding from the UK government to develop WasteMap, a technology that helps firms track manufacturing waste and identifies assets that can be extracted and returned to production.
Its research found that most manufacturers lack visibility into the waste material once it enters downstream, but 90% said that knowing more about what happens to their waste is a high priority.
E-waste is also the fastest growing waste stream in the EU. Two new EU directives – the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive and the Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive – are due to come into effect between 2024 and 2026 and will compel thousands of companies with an EU presence – including US and UK multinationals – to provide detailed information about how they address environmental (and human rights) risks across their entire value chain.
Circular technology lifecycle management offers a blueprint for aligning tech strategies to some of the critical points of the new regulatory framework but requires a different way of thinking about devices – as something to use and reuse, not own and discard.
Not having a strategy that looks at the entire lifecycle of a device – from procurement to information technology asset disposal (ITAD) – is simply no longer an option.
“It is increasingly urgent that enterprises, public sector organisations and governments consider sustainable alternatives that extend device life,” says Russ Ernst, CTO, Blancco Technology Group, a provider of secure sustainable data erasure and mobile lifecycle solutions.
The staggering e-waste mountain stems from “mishandling IT equipment and devices that have reached end-of-life,” Ernst says.
Organisations are also advised to look for ISO-certified processes to guarantee compliance with international laws, as well as best-practice handling of data and environmental procedures.
The overhaul of processes and systems that have been in place for many years can be a daunting prospect, one that many organisations believe will be far too complicated and costly to manage. But it doesn’t have to be.
“For too long companies have thrown more metal at IT problems, instead what needs to happen is code optimisation,” says Goldfarb. “Tech teams need to write better code and run it on efficient servers.”
By leveraging Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) tools such as low-code, businesses needn’t take a rip and replace approach to legacy systems, she argues.
Instead, existing systems can be updated and built upon using a building block approach that allows for iterative and pragmatic development using a host of Intelligent Automation (IA) tools like Artificial Intelligence (AI), Robotic Process Automation (RPA) and Machine Learning (ML) to name a few.
Low code at its widest means software tools to enable employees to develop processes using drag and drop interfaces. More narrowly, low-code Application Platforms enable enterprises to develop processes and applications between three and ten times more quickly than traditional approaches.
Such an approach can help companies achieve greater efficiency toward ‘green goals’ while retaining legacy equipment.
“There are some very simple and direct emissions benefits that are easy to calculate,” says Richard Farrell, chief innovation officer at IT firm Netcall. “For example, in healthcare, the use of a low-code platform provides patient information digitally, reducing the need for printing and postage while continuing to use legacy Patient Administration Systems (PAS).
Netcall has partnered with low-code specialist DI Blue to develop the my.FirstClimate app for First Climate which supports organisations in achieving their climate objectives.
“Through the app, customers can calculate their carbon footprint, which in turn helps them to reduce their future emissions and offset any remaining emissions,” says Farrell.
Low-code platforms are typically hosted in the cloud. Connectivity with company systems is ideally achieved via APIs, although other techniques including file transfers and use of RPA (are sometimes required for less open or older systems).
APIs can be made available from some platforms (including Netcall Liberty Create), so that authorised applications in an organisation can interact with low-code data and processes.
Digital Twins – real time digital replicas of real-world entities and processes – establish an environment for analysis to answer questions, suggest alterations and help identify the optimal decision – all with the objective of improving sustainability.
One of the key benefits is that the right decision can be identified up to 80% faster than with more traditional methods, according to Slingshot Simulations.
The UK startup is using its digital twin specialism to help organisations like The Rainforest Trust protect endangered natural environments globally, including private areas, national parks, community forests and indigenous property.
These changes can be implemented through digital twin technology, testing if the changes will help to make a difference to the proposed natural environment. If this is not the case, a different strategy can then be introduced.
Pete Mills, Slingshot’s development director explains, “We create a virtual digital copy of what exists in the physical world to help better plan how to tap into resources and reduce conflict without causing large-scale destruction.
The data is then shared with local communities and stakeholders – “the more eyeballs there are on these hotspots the more pressure comes to bear to effect change and the greater the incentive is to feed in more data to improve the digital twin,” Mills says.
One of the biggest open development platforms on which to build enterprise level digital twins for industrial and scientific use is the Nvidia Omniverse. California headquartered electronics designer Cadence, for example, allows users of its software in the Omniverse to create digital twins of data centres.
“This enable teams to plan, test, and validate every aspect before the physical data centre is built,” explains senior product manager, Mark Fenton.
“Our software enables engineers to simulate data centre cooling design changes and conduct ‘what-if’ analysis ultimately reducing the need to build new facilities until absolutely necessary.”
These 3D models are connected to real-time data and accurately present multiple real-world physics, including mechanical and thermal, fluid dynamics.
Once a data centre is fully constructed, the sensors, control system, and telemetry can be connected to the digital twin inside the Omniverse, enabling real-time monitoring of operations.
Engineers can then simulate power peaking or cooling system failures, optimise layout, and validate software and component upgrades before deployment.
However, there’s a ‘dark’ side to all this data generated that must be addressed. With more data being produced than ever before, estimates suggest that 80% remains ‘dark ‘– data that is not used to derive insights or decision making.
Worse, the energy required to simply store dark data results in millions of tons of CO2 emissions a year. Slingshot – which has tools to model dark data – estimates that up to 52% of all information an organisation produces and stores is dark.
So for sustainability’s sake as well as for operational and security reasons it’s regularly worth assessing what data needs to be kept for the short, medium and long term and which data can be marked for (dare we say it) deletion.
Organisations traditionally track supplier performance using paper records, auditing and a degree of trust. Not only a labour-intensive process, but there are also inevitable gaps in the chain and the data can be easy to falsify.
With information often unconnected across suppliers, obtaining a comprehensive and holistic and transparent picture is a challenge. Blockchain and distributed ledger technologies promise to address the lack of accountability in the supply chain.
“Blockchain can build trust in a system by providing traceability and auditability,” says blockchain and energy entrepreneur Simone Acconero, also CEO at FlexiDAO. “During the last year, traction has increased dramatically in regard to blockchain sustainability initiatives.”
Blockchain technology enables all participants in a brand’s supply chain to record information about their activities in a single, chronological and unchangeable record.
Blocks of data are stored in a digital chain within a distributed ledger. Every time a new transaction occurs on the blockchain, a record is added to every participant’s ‘ledger’ in a way that makes it near impossible to change, hack, or cheat the system.
FlexiDAO’s blockchain claims to enable companies and governments to operate on carbon-free energy by certifying and tracing their electricity and its true carbon content around the clock.
“This is possible through a digital process called ‘tokenisation of electricity’, through which units of electricity become digital goods, assets, or environmental commodities,” explains Acconero.
“This permits automatic certificate generation (timestamping), as well as transfers and ownership-tracking based on cryptographic proof.”
Digital time-stamped energy certificates can only be cancelled once, preventing double counting of renewable energy. Auditors can trace electricity consumed in the supply chain back to any stage of its life cycle via blockchain.
“Ultimately, when requested, we can tokenize this electricity produced by a specific renewable asset on a specific grid at a specific time, and accurately match this with a company’s consumption using blockchain as a digital notary.”
FlexiDAO counts energy buyers like Google, Microsoft, and Vodafone using its system as well as energy sellers like Acciona and Fortum.
Blockchain can also be used to track carbon offsetting commitments. Clothing brand Tentree plants 10 trees for every item sold and tracks this on the blockchain. Its partners input data such as GPS coordinates, site images, planting details, along with ground-based sensors with timestamps that are permanently recorded on the blockchain.
Meanwhile web3 technologists Trst01 and Rubix have joined forces in India to offer companies operating there a blockchain authenticated ‘plastics credit’ system. Plastic credits are described by Trst01 as measurable, verifiable and transferable units representing a specific quantity of plastic collected from the environment or recycled.
This is intended to help companies authenticate their conformity with national recycling standards.
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