The corporate world has grown increasingly aware (if not always accepting) of the role it is expected to play in the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions amid rising global temperatures.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic hindered some corporate sustainability initiatives, more than 80% of executives report being concerned about climate change, according to Deloitte research published last year. The research, which polled 750 executives, found that top concerns included the operational impact of climate-related disasters, scarcity or cost of resources, and regulatory or political uncertainty.
“Sustainability and net-zero carbon emission targets will continue to be a top priority for organizations,” said Matt Watts, chief technology evangelist at NetApp. Customers want companies to be transparent about their sustainability practices, not only in their head offices but throughout the supply chain.
The push for corporate sustainability commitments comes not just from the public but also from the government. The current U.S. administration has its regulatory eye on sustainability, including corporate-level changes and funding for initiatives like charging stations to hasten the transition to electric vehicles. In addition, while the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference fell short of the expectations of many climate change activists, the conference put an international lens on the need for sustainability commitments at all levels of government and business.
With all this in mind, how can enterprises use automation to help achieve their sustainability goals?
On the one hand, automation technology has the potential to support corporate sustainability initiatives. From small-scale changes, like automated heating and lights, to large-scale goals, like green data centers, enterprise automation offers a range of sustainability benefits. On the other hand, increased automation adoption and scaling can present some inherent challenges (e.g., significant energy consumption) for sustainable practices.
Rethinking Data Centers
“It is common knowledge that data centers are huge consumers of energy, with global electricity use anywhere between 1% to 2%, according to various sources, including the International Energy Agency, and cooling costs often around 40% of total energy use,” said Madhav Kalia, global head of data center automation at technology firm ABB.
However, data centers have begun to look at the sustainability successes in other sectors and innovate their practices through automation. “The same innovations being applied to the smart grid and to mission-critical industrial plants are being adopted by data centers,” Kalia said.
Hyperscale data centers will drive innovation in data center design and operations, Watts added. These innovations will aim to “increase resource utilization and incentivize customers to understand and use the appropriate data storage and processing technologies for their businesses,” he said.
Most hyperscale providers, including AWS, Microsoft, and Google Cloud, have taken strong stances on sustainability. Hyperscale providers have discussed making data centers carbon neutral. “Most organizations will significantly improve their own sustainability by taking advantage of [carbon-neutral data centers],” Watts said.
Automation can play a role in furthering the sustainability of enterprise data and cloud operations. For example, storage accounts for 10% to 15% of data center energy consumption, but most data stored is used infrequently and does not need to be in primary storage, according to Watts. “Using automated policies to migrate this data to the cloud can have a very positive impact on sustainability objectives,” he said. And for the 68% of data that is never used again after its creation, data classification and categorization supports automated policies for determining its best use and storage protocols.
“It’s not simply about deleting data, although we certainly should consider this, but … about working out the right performance, protection and sustainability appropriate for the data you create,” Watts said.
Analytics Can Support Corporate Sustainability Initiatives
IT sustainability goes deeper than data. Because compute makes up a significant chunk of data center energy consumption, infrastructure analytics tools can help organizations understand the resources required by an application or service, Watts said. Armed with these insights, organizations can identify waste and determine when it is best to run an app or service.
These insights can also guide decisions about replacing legacy systems and adding applications or services into operations.
Additionally, automated optimization tools can determine the minimum cloud compute resources needed to support a given application. This doesn’t just save money, Watts noted. It can ensure that only the necessary resources are used to support cloud applications, further supporting sustainable practices.
Sustainability Benefits of Automation
Industries most often associated with high emission rates have already seen how automation can drive progress. “In many energy-intensive … industries, such as transport, manufacturing and data centers, automation is already well-established as a key contributor to energy efficiency,” said Rajesh Ramachandran, chief digital officer of ABB Process Automation.
Shipping is one industry with a high environmental cost. “Thirty-five percent of all heavy-duty trucking miles are driven without freight, resulting in unnecessary cost, hassle and carbon waste across the freight industry,” said Juliet Horton, chief of staff of product and engineering at Convoy, a trucking software company. The inefficiencies stem from a lack of visibility and communication between shippers and carriers.
Convoy’s system connects truck drivers (via an app) with shippers (via a web platform). Using machine learning and automation, the system looks to help truckers spend less time hauling empty trailers, thereby reducing the sector’s carbon footprint, Horton said.
Convoy also provides its customers with the automated optimization of transportation routes and flexible appointment windows that lower both transportation costs and carbon emissions. By highlighting the environmental benefits of its services, Convoy can tie sustainability to a tangible business benefit. “By branding the appointment window option as a ‘Green Appointment Window,’ we focus a shipper’s attention on the importance of reducing their carbon emissions,” Horton said.
Challenges, even contradictions, remain inherent in the use of automation for improving energy efficiency and operations, but there is also plenty of potential.
“Ultimately, achieving energy savings through increasing the efficiency of operations is key to helping enterprises reach their sustainability goals,” Ramachandran said. “Technologies that help enterprises optimize their energy use are already available today, and advances in innovation are continuously being made to further improve these.”