The first step for a businesses and household to reduce energy use is getting a handle on the data.
Microsoft on Monday will make available an add-on to its Dynamics AX business applications that allows midsize companies to collect and analyze their energy usage and translate that into the environmental impact.
It's part of a broader effort around environmental sustainability at the company, headed by Robert Bernard, Microsoft's chief environmental strategist, who started at that position about a year ago.
With the Environmental Dashboard, people input utility bill information and the software generates a read-out of historical trends and a calculation of how much greenhouse gases a company produces.
"The impetus behind this is that we continue to see a greater intersection between energy efficiency and environmental stewardship," said Bernard. "We're creating software tools and services that help customers save resources--energy, money--and to reduce their greenhouse gases."
The Dynamics AX applications are designed for midsize companies which typically can't afford to have an audit of their environmental profile. Customers who have the 2009 version of the application can download the energy and environment add-on for free on Monday.
In this version, people need to manually enter usage information. In the next edition, Microsoft expects it can get that data automatically from so-called advanced meters and, in the future, directly from utilities.
There's a budding business to bring more clarity to energy usage and carbon emissions, for both businesses and consumers. A handful of start-ups, too, are developing applications specific to carbon emissions, either through managing carbon offset programs or business energy-efficiency efforts.
Microsoft gets its green on
Bernard said that the energy and environment snap-on to the Dynamics applications is one facet of the programs he's been tapped to run.
The environmental sustainability group works within Microsoft's Trustworthy Computing division. That organizational structure was deliberate because, like security and privacy, Microsoft intends to prioritize energy efficiency across its products, Bernard said.
"There are literally hundreds of people working on this issue," he said, when you include engineers in different software groups and Microsoft's work with utilities. "It's not a marketing campaign, it's not a product. It's embedded in everything we do."
It doesn't appear that Microsoft will be getting directly into the clean-energy generation business, as some of its rivals have done. IBM is looking to license solar energy-related technologies. Google's philanthropic arm has invested in a few renewable energy start-ups. Intel, meanwhile, spun out solar manufacturer SpectraWatt last year.
Instead, Bernard's responsibility covers corporate environmental sustainability; software to enhance energy efficiency; and partnering with outside organizations like The Clinton Foundation's Clinton Climate Initiative (CCI) to provide cities software to track greenhouse gases.
On the software, Bernard said that Microsoft is automating data gathering on data center equipment to show energy usage and carbon impact. Microsoft engineers are also looking at ways to make different software platforms--for mobile devices, PCs, and servers--more energy efficient.
Software plays a potentially big role in modernizing the electricity grid to run more efficiently. There are dozens of smart-grid companies which collect and present energy usage data in real time so consumers can see what appliances consume the most energy. Energy-efficiency programs, run by demand-response software, allow utilities to do things like turn down thermostats selectively during times of peak demand.
"There's going to be massive amounts of software optimization developed over the next decade," Bernard predicts. "Start with the consumer or the building manager. What's going to be the breakthrough in user interface so that it becomes very simple to manage the energy in your home? It'll be like going from your old VCR versus Tivo."
Outside of software, Bernard's group played a role in reducing waste at Microsoft's main Redmond, Washington campus. By switching to compostable dishware in its dining facilities, Microsoft has cut its waste in half in the last twelve months.