Nov 28 2023

Q&A: The Next Steps Energy and Utility Leaders Can Take Toward Sustainability

The U.S. electrical infrastructure is over 50 years old. There are plans to modernize, it but in the meantime, Vince Digneo at Palo Alto Networks says to invest in sustainable technology solutions with built-in security.

By 2027, 75 percent of organizations will have implemented a data center infrastructure sustainability program, according to Gartner. With just a few years to plan, IT leaders in the energy and utility industry must chart their trajectory forward. To achieve their sustainability goals, companies will need to take concrete steps to modernize IT, shifting toward the cloud and away from legacy infrastructure, all while navigating an uncertain economic future and increased cyber risk.

To get a sense of the landscape, BizTech magazine sat down with Vince Digneo, head of sustainability, climate and clean energy at Palo Alto Networks. He shares his expert insights on what energy and utility leaders should be doing within their organizations, new tech to consider and how teaming up with the right tech partner can make all the difference for the future.

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BIZTECH: How should IT leaders be thinking about corporate climate responsibility? There’s a lot of hype around it.

DIGNEO: Traditionally, a lot of companies have been told you need to go save the planet. But at Palo Alto Networks the mission is to make each day safer and more secure than the day before.

What sustainability is all about is more than anything making your business secure and resilient for the future. When you approach it from that perspective, there’s a lot of money to be saved.

BIZTECH: What are some steps IT decision-makers can take toward achieving sustainability?

DIGNEO: If we were to talk about making impact on climate alone, we are doing our part, but it’s not enough. It’s only when we look at the entire ecosystem or value chain that progress is made. 

What’s going on now is you see that many people feel hopeless, but there’s a lot that they can actually do.  Particularly when it comes to IT infrastructure and modernizing their energy and utilities technology. This is an incredibly important step, because on the front end of it, if you’re powering everything with renewable energy, it’s going to draw emissions down, which ultimately is going to reduce the impact on climate.  If you’re transitioning from anything fossil fuel-powered to a decarbonized, electrified, modern infrastructure, climate will start to get addressed. 

DISCOVER: Learn how these energy and utilities solutions can help your organization.

So, how do you do that?  In our case, we’ve partnered with our Silicon Valley utility in Santa Clara. The utility does its own power purchase agreement of renewable energy and delivers renewable electricity to us, which means we can decarbonize our headquarters and power what we have left with renewable energy. If everybody’s purchasing renewable electricity, that means that their emissions from IT infrastructure go down, and it takes them on-grid. But a modern grid requires maximum cybersecurity, to protect both the infrastructure and all of our customers.

In short, it takes a community of effort to achieve that impact.

Vince Digneo
Our business should be running on renewable electricity all the time, but the grid is not set up for that yet, and it needs to be. This is a core part of the modernization plan.”

Vince Digneo Head of Sustainability, Climate and Clean Energy, Palo Alto Networks

BIZTECH: Can you talk a bit more about grid modernization, and what’s involved in that process?

DIGNEO: Most of our electrical infrastructure is old, greater than 50 or 60 years old, and it’s not capable of handling, for example, solar energy. Our business should be running on renewable electricity all the time, but the grid is not set up for that yet, and it needs to be. This is a core part of the modernization plan.

BIZTECH: How should businesses be thinking about conserving power as the grid continues to modernize?

DIGNEO: The way to think about it is — say, for example, in places where the grid is run off a coal power plant, that coal power plant runs all the time. That’s called energy continuity. When coal burns all the time, it’s producing emissions. Then, it’s sort of throttled based on big demand times and slowed down during low-demand periods. 

RELATED: Learn how the right technology investments can make your organization sustainable.

You have massive solar arrays generating gobs of renewable solar electricity when the sun is shining, and then it starts to taper off. They call this the duck curve. As the sun goes down and people come home, their demand goes up, but the solar amount is coming down. That duck curve is basically one of the things we’re trying to solve. 

Particularly now, with the Inflation Reduction Act, there are more incentives to build renewable electricity infrastructure. Landowners and developers can invest in this energy, and that creates an income stream for them. So, everybody wins. 

BIZTECH: If investing in renewable electricity infrastructure is one step IT leaders can take, what are some others?

DIGNEO: For starters, set science-based targets. A lot of startups and even mature businesses have servers running all the time. Often, the server rooms are located in an office building. These people are working 50 feet away from that environment, and they need the temperature to be between 68 to 72 degrees to be comfortable.

But the server room needs to be much cooler than that so it doesn’t melt down or malfunction. So, that little server room housed in an office building is using a ton of energy just to keep the servers cool, which is completely inefficient.

To combat this, organizations should consider transitioning from on-premises hardware to a cloud to bring efficiencies at scale. If you shift to a cloud, chances are that your office building emissions will go down, your energy consumption will go down and your employees will be more comfortable. Virtualization out to a cloud makes a ton of sense. 

75%

The percentage of organizations that are predicted to implement a data center infrastructure sustainability program by 2027

Source: Gartner, “Unlock the Business Benefits of Sustainable IT Infrastructure,” March 2023

BIZTECH: How does technology like motion sensors, productivity apps or data-driven Internet of Things factor into investing in renewable electricity infrastructure?

DIGNEO: Every business is different. You have to evaluate for each one. But there are everyday, small steps that make a difference. You can look at which part of the building is occupied and at what time of day and what kind of sensors you can deploy to make energy more efficient. Another example is LED bulbs.

Just keep in mind that anytime you make a switch from one technology to another, there are upfront costs but the savings are great in the long term.

RELATED: Find out how to bolster SCADA network security.

BIZTECH: Introducing a new technology can expose a company to more cyber risks. What would you say to IT leaders who are struggling to prioritize sustainability and climate incentives with cybersecurity?

DIGNEO: When it comes to cybersecurity, you have to be in front of every threat.  Once you’re behind, you’re done, you’re hacked. But these sustainable technology solutions are so advanced because they have security built into them.

When sustainability and climate incentives are talked about, at least in my experience, it’s on a different plane than security, and we need to bring them together. You can’t decouple the two. They go hand in hand. Once you come to that realization, there are efficiencies to be gained, there’s security to be had and you realize the payback is on the horizon.

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