March 11th, 2011


Chief Environmental Strategist, Microsoft

Founder and Executive Director, ClimateVoice; Former Green Energy Czar, Google


Arch rivals Microsoft and Google found common cause at Climate One on Friday, March 11 promoting the energy efficiency of the cloud. Efficiency alone won’t solve the climate crisis, Rob Bernard of Microsoft and Google’s William Weihl said, but smart IT can reduce emissions, help green the grid, and save companies and consumers money.

"We use a lot of electricity. We spend money on that electricity. The very simple thing is that we can save money by using less electricity. So by investing engineering effort, investing capital in making our systems more efficient, we save money in the end," said Weihl, Google's Green Energy Czar.

Google and Microsoft operate power-hungry data centers around the globe, and therefore have good reason to promote energy efficiency. However, Weihl and Rob Bernard, Microsoft’s Chief Environmental Strategist, insisted that their efficiency gains will be shared as IT becomes ever-more integrated into the global economy.

"I would actually bet that as a percentage of global electricity use that information and communication, technology will use a higher percentage over time. But in the process it will make the entire economy more energy efficient. So, yes, that 2% will grow, but the other 98% will shrink, and shrink faster," said Weihl.

Bernard cited a few examples. Jonathan Koomey, a researcher affiliated with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Stanford University, had, he said, looked into the carbon footprint and energy use resulting from the switch from CDs to digital music. "Even in the worst case, it was a 40% to 50% reduction in the amount of energy," Bernard said. Another example came when Climate One’s Greg Dalton asked if Google and Microsoft discouraged employees from traveling. "Absolutely," Bernard replied. Microsoft had cut per capita travel by 30% in one year by investing resources in video-conferencing technology, he said.

During the Q&A, an audience member asked Bernard and Weihl what can be done to overcome the barriers holding up even bigger efficiency gains. "Most energy efficiency work I would say actually is a no brainer. But people don’t seem to have brains," Weihl said.

One big problem, he said, is the disjointed decision-making practiced at many companies. Take data centers. "In many organizations, the people who buy the computers, the people who design and build the building, and the people who actually pay to run the computers and pay for the electricity might all be different people, and they each have their own budget," Weihl said. "If you focus people on total cost of ownership, lifetime cost - capital, plus operating cost - and get everybody to think in those terms, not just in terms of their own budget, you can make a lot of progress." Bernard agreed. "More and more when I go and talk to customers, the challenge is much if not more governance and behavior than it is technology." He cited what Microsoft discovered when it flipped the pricing model for its data centers. Rather than paying for servers and space, it would bill for energy use. "It had massive impact on behavior change,” Bernard said. The result? A maintenance worker, with incentives now aligned, power-washed the white roofs at one of Microsoft’s data center facilities. Energy consumption in the building immediately dropped by 3%.

- Justin Gerdes
March 11, 2011
Photos by Ed Ritger
The Commonwealth Club of California