Greening the Internet in a Carbon-Constrained World


This year marks a turning point in the debate on global climate change. The focus of the discussion is rapidly moving from a scientific analysis of how human activity effects climate change to a political process on how best to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. California is leading this shift with its 2006 Assembly Bill 32 (AB32) calling for the state’s GHG emissions by 2020 to be no more than 1990’s, roughly 15 percent lower than 2008’s.

The Climate Group’s Smart 2020 study reveals that the global Information and Communication Technology (ICT) industry produces greenhouse gases equivalent to that produced by the aviation industry (~2-3  percent). Furthermore, the ICT sector’s emissions will nearly triple, in a business-as-usual scenario, from 2002 to 2020. On the other hand, the Climate Group estimates that transformative applications of ICT to electricity grids, logistic chains, intelligent transportation and building infrastructure, and other social systems can reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by about 15 percent— five times ICT’s own footprint!

This opportunity led the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2) to co-host with the California Public Utilities Commission a workshop on greening the Internet economy. The two-day event, held at UC San Diego a week ago, brought together 200 leaders from industry, academia, and the public sector to discuss how to reduce ICT’s carbon footprint, while using ICT innovations to build out the smart grids, buildings, and transportation systems necessary to achieve the goals set by AB32. Webcasts of all the talks are available here.

The quality of the workshop discussions, starting with the keynote from Bill Wiehl, Google’s Green Energy Czar, was exceptional. IBM, Intel, HP, Sun, SilverSprings Network, CISCO, GM, and others from the private sector provided a great deal of insight into the “real world” challenges of applying ICT innovations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

What was most interesting to me was the near universal recognition that we need to re-invent into a digital architecture our telecommunications, transportation, building, energy, and entertainment systems if we are going to meet targets like AB32. That is, we must integrate the Internet with each of these pre-existing societal-scale systems, so that myriad connected sensors and actuators throughout the systems enable them to become self-regulating so that they use much less energy. Lights and thermostats will adjust if no humans are sensed in rooms of buildings, cars will spend less time in congestions (burning fuel but going nowhere), and consumers will adjust their use of electricity in response to real time knowledge of pricing.  

A recurring theme from the workshop is that we need more public/private “AB32 testbeds” that enable scientists to experiment with the complex tradeoffs required. The first testbed category is for determining methods for lowering the carbon intensity of ICT itself—as was discussed in the workshop’s “Greening the Power Hungry Data Center” panel. An  example is the GreenLight Project, recently funded by the National Science Foundation that provides an instrumented data center on the UCSD campus that allows for detailed, real-time data measurements of the critical subcomponents. The resulting data is then made available publically on the web, guiding users who want to lower their energy cost of computation and data storage.

The second category of testbed is for studying the application of ICT to reduce the carbon footprint of our society’s infrastructure systems. The last panel on “Academic ICT and Green Cyberinfrastructure” explored the use of university campuses as rapid prototyping “Living Laboratories for the Green Future.” Campuses are functionally small towns with their own power grids, commuter transportation systems, hospitals, and populations in the tens of thousands. They can function as at-scale testbeds. Calit2’s two campuses, UCSD and UC Irvine, are ideal for such work as they are among the most aggressive campuses in the country on becoming “carbon neutral” – deploying green energy sources (solar, fuel cells, etc.), while also reducing their own carbon footprint through efficiency programs.

Perhaps infused with the enthusiasm from the inauguration earlier in the week there was truly a “Yes We Can” attitude among the workshop attendees. Now is the time for us to roll up our sleeves, reach out to the best and brightest, and as is the American way, innovate our way to a better and greener tomorrow.

Larry Smarr is director of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2), a partnership of UC San Diego and UC Irvine. Follow @lsmarr

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  • As Larry mentioned, “lights and thermostats will adjust if no humans are sensed in rooms of buildings.” As well as being able to link to building control systems, new space management systems are also able to link with carbon footprint tracking mechanisms. Room reservation software links with control systems which then tracks and manages the use of rooms and spaces. The carbon footprint tracking system then connects that data to energy consumption and presents the information in a user digestible format. In effect it enables energy usage to be attributed to teams and areas within the building. The principle is based on ‘you can’t manage what you can’t measure’ and provides the necessary information to demonstrate where savings can be made. Clearly benchmarking energy use in equivalent types of space in different parts of a building or even across buildings can help to pinpoint areas for change and therefore reducing costs and consumption.

    It is about providing relevant information that raises awareness. People respond more readily to visible signs and if people know the level of energy they are consuming, they are much more likely to make adjustments.

  • Yeah,You are right- “Private sector provided a great deal of insight into the “real world” challenges of applying ICT innovations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” World leader should think and act about this matter.