The Race for Green IT: Are Awards Keeping the Pressure on Microsoft and Co?

photo by jiscWith all the hype about “greening the IT sector” and Silicon Valley companies’ attempts to showcase their clean tech efforts especially at their data centers, I couldn’t help but hold Microsoft’s feet to the fire when its global sustainability director TJ DiCaprio was honored with an award at this week’s Climate Leadership Conference in Washington D.C.

She was the only person from a big IT company among the award recipients, and there weren’t too many other Silicon Valley folks at the conference overall – a great chance for some good press, but it made me wonder about Microsoft’s status among the big IT companies that are all working hard to green their image these days…is there a clear sign who is ahead of the pack?

It turns out, environmental groups are tracking this question zealously, with annually updated reports like Greenpeace’s How Clean is your iCloud and its Cool IT Leaderboard ranking companies on their use of renewables, transparency about their carbon footprint, and other criteria. The iCloud report focuses mostly on greening data centers while the Leaderboard (which is being updated on March 22nd, stay tuned!) focuses on a wider range of companies and their energy leadership outside the IT sector. There was such a buzz around these performance evaluations last year that Greenpeace actually updated Apple’s status in the Green iCloud rankings after the company announced some new renewable initiatives – it is now pretty much on par with Microsoft in most of the report’s metrics, though apparently Microsoft and Amazon are the next firms up for a re-ranking.

“Ultimately, we think the IT sector has a huge role to play in driving clean energy deployment” said Greenpeace’s Gary Cook, the group’s Senior IT policy analyst in charge of the ranking reports, “and some are making that deployment happen with direct investment in renewable energy as well as clean energy advocacy.”

Cook, however, cited Google as the prime example for this rather than Microsoft, pointing out that the two companies have data centers in similar Midwest locations (Iowa and Oklahoma for Google vs. Iowa and Chicago area for Microsoft) but Google is signing power purchase agreements for over 100 megawatts of wind from under a 20-year contracts through its subsidiary Google Energy, while Microsoft simply buys renewable electricity certificates (RECs) and offsets.

But DiCaprio indicated at the conference that Microsoft has similar plans, telling me the firm has “an intense focus on driving through energy efficiency at its data centers and on building clean tech expertise.” She also said “we are looking at power purchase agreements for on-site power from clean tech sources” and pointed to the company’s showcase pilot project with waste-to-energy often referred to as “poop-to-power.”

Without saying so outright, DiCaprio made it clear that these ranking reports and other pressure makes her job easier. Besides being honored, her conference participation included being on a panel about making the business case for climate change mitigation and “communicating commitment,” where she emphasized the role of outside pressure in getting a company to take climate action. Being part of the Carbon Disclosure Project, she stressed, makes her job of promoting sustainability easier because exposing firms’ greenhouse gas footprints means sustainability directors like her have better justification for climate-friendly programs. The rankings and other public attention fuel this fire, especially for firms like hers exposed to public scrutiny and competition.

[Image credit: JISC, Flickr]

Elizabeth (Lisa) Zelljadt

Elizabeth (Lisa) Zelljadt has been working in climate change and energy policy for the better part of a decade as a reporter and analyst, mainly covering carbon markets and global climate negotiations. She is currently a fellow at the Ecologic Institute and blogwriter for ClearlyEnergy .

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