Mar 16 2009

Practice What You Preach

Techies from green technology startups reveal the consumption-minded measures the companies take internally.

Photo: Thomas Broening
Silver Spring Networks Chief Technology Officer Raj Vaswani arms the smart-grid startup’s employees with notebooks so they can work from anywhere.

Gas prices are volatile. Nonrenewable energy supplies are dwindling. And the nation is hungry for a better way to treat the environment. That’s a perfect storm in which new, tech-savvy green companies can flourish. BizTech set out to see if hot startups Boston-Power, Mascoma and Silver Spring Networks practice what they preach. The answer: Yes, indeed.

No Tech Needed

Mascoma, a Boston-based producer of clean-burning ethanol from nonfood feedstocks, applied a green thumb to its own internal operational practices.

For starters, the company established a ride-sharing program out of its Lebanon, N.H., research and development facility, says Mike Ladisch, Mascoma’s chief technology officer. That effort reduces fuel consumption for about 65 staffers who work out of that office.

The same team that started the ride-sharing program suggested another energy-conserving measure: Lower the temperature within the company’s three main sites by a few degrees and encourage its 108 employees

to don sweaters. He’s not sure what the building’s temperature is set at, but “it’s not overly warm,” Ladisch chuckles. And to further conserve energy, the building’s fans are turned down in the evening.

In addition, the company promotes other environmentally sensitive work policies, such as recycling printer toner cartridges, banning the use of paper cups in the office and promoting telecommuting whenever possible.

Less Juice

Likewise, smart-grid and battery-maker startups Silver Spring Networks and Boston-Power also encourage telecommuting. Silver Spring standardizes on notebooks as opposed to desktops, which helps accomplish two green IT goals, says Raj Vaswani, CTO of the Redwood City, Calif., company.

“It’s supportive of telecommuting because our people can use them when they are working in the office and then take the same machine home,” Vaswani explains.

Notebook battery-maker Boston-Power also standardizes on notebook computers and ecourages its employees to work “off the grid as much as possible. “This results in less demand for grid-generated power, and also helps Boston-Power staffers demonstrate the company’s value proposition of untethering workers from the grid,” says Associate Director of IT Greg Glovach.

Richard Hodges, founder and CEO of consulting firm GreenIT in Sonoma, Calif., says notebook computers typically consume less power than desktops. And most notebooks sport LED screens, which typically utilize up to 30 percent less power than regular LCD screens.

Smart Tech + Less = Green

Vaswani is also positioning the company to take better advantage of thin clients with its notebook-centric approach. Accordingly, Silver Spring has deployed a powerful network “that allows for simple clients and rich servers,” he explains.

Since 2006, Cisco Systems has deployed its telepresence technology in 135 cities worldwide and has hosted an estimated 224,000 meetings with telepresence.

Employees avoided travel in 43,000 of those meetings. Cisco’s use of telepresence has saved 92 metric tons of emissions — the equivalent of taking 21,122 cars off the road.

Why thin clients? Thin clients consume about 6.6 watts of energy, compared with desktops, which can consume 20 times more energy — as much as 150 watts. Thin clients do require server power, but most eat up just 8 to 10 watts on the server, explains Jeff McNaught, chief marketing officer at thin-client maker Wyse Technology. Smaller than desktops or notebooks, thin clients require fewer raw materials to build and typically have a long life-span of seven to eight years, which lessens their environmental impact, he adds.

In April, Boston-Power plans to activate what it calls a “thin client factory IT” architecture, whereby users utilize Windows terminals rather than individual hard drives and/or floppy drives. Glovach hopes this new architecture will result in dramatically less consumption of grid-generated power.

On the server side, Boston-Power, Mascoma and Silver Spring have found ways to do less by turning to two increasingly popular technologies: virtualization and video conferencing.

Vaswani estimates that by deploying VMware’s server virtualization technology, Silver Spring has been able to reduce the number of its servers by one-third. According to VMware, a two-processor server can run between eight and 12 virtualized applications. Moving one application from its own separate server into a virtualized environment can save a company 7,000 kilowatts of electricity per year — or about $560.

Desktop virtualization has a place at Silver Spring, too. “Virtualization helps to optimize the laptop by running multiple applications off a single server,” Vaswani explains. “Desktop virtualization allows our people to work on multiple operating systems using just one computer and not two.”

Boston-Power installed VMware tools at its headquarters to virtualize their servers as well, resulting in a reduction in physical hardware, power drain and heat generated, Glovach says.

Mascoma reduced its carbon footprint with video conferencing and VPN implementations. The company’s Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS) network carries its video conferencing and VPN traffic. “Whenever we start a new site, we try to implement video conferencing immediately,” says Larry Linskey, Mascoma’s director of information technology. For instance, Mascoma installed video conferencing capabilities at its Rome, N.Y., manufacturing plant when it opened about six months ago, he says.

Photo: Brian Smith
Larry Linskey of Mascoma bundles up and turns the thermostat down.

Although Ladisch and Linskey haven’t conducted a formal return-on-investment analysis for their video conferencing and VPN initiatives, “we do know that it’s much less expensive to use a VPN network and do conference calls” than it is for employees to travel frequently, says Ladisch. And “there’s a lot of enthusiasm about this,” he adds.

Turn It Off

According to the Alliance to Save Energy’s PC Energy Report, as many as 60 percent of employed adults in the United States do not turn off their PCs at night, wasting significant amounts of energy and money.

Computers and systems at Mascoma are powered down when they’re not in use at night, Linskey says. He and his two-person staff have also automated the bulk of the company’s network, data center and software systems, which helps lessen overall energy consumption. “We run fairly lean as a result,” says Ladisch. “It not only saves energy, but saves a lot of time.”

Automation is a great idea, agrees GreenIT’s Hodges. Businesses should also turn off their computers, monitors and printers at night. To save more energy, unplug the equipment from the outlets, too. Equipment that is turned off but is still plugged in continues to draw power.

Because unplugging everything isn’t always practical, companies should use “smart” power strips, which stop devices from drawing power when they are off, he says.

While technologies and effort help make these green initiatives work, both Mascoma and Silver Spring credit their people — who are as focused on developing green technology as they are on practicing what they preach — as the linchpin to success.

Additional reporting by Thomas Hoffman and Wylie Wong.