BT and climate change part 1

BT’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) group ran an analyst event a couple of months ago that told the company’s green story in some detail. I came away impressed by the way BT has identified its own competencies in this area, and plans to leverage them for profit and ecological benefit. There is money to be made in cutting carbon emissions, and I won’t begrudge BT for doing so.

There is an underlying ambition about BT’s plans that reflects the green economic tsunami we’re going to see over the next few years.

One takeaway – and I should stress this is my take, rather than a BT statement, is that the telecoms services giant sees an opportunity to compete with IBM and major services firms in the consulting-led business transformation sector as business sustainability becomes a key corporate focus. Market inflection points are market opportunities.

Key takeaways:

  • BT is cutting its own emissions- top down and bottom up
  • BT is helping customers cut their emissions
  • BT selling video-conferencing solutions to reduce travel and related carbon expenditure


So who represented BT’s views?

  • Donna Young, head of climate change
  • Chris Tuppen, head of sustainable development
  • Steve O’Donnel, global head of data centres and customer experience management

The analyst attendance list was telling: not surprisingly Gartner and Forrester are tackling the green data center issue and sent three or four analysts each. ComputerWorldUK’s Green channel pointed to analyst interest in green issues last week.

Offset or Bust

First up was Chris Tuppen:

“Many companies have made a commitment to go for carbon neutrality. We didn’t. We went for carbon busting. Our main goal is to reduce carbon wherever we can.”

BT started on the long road to carbon reduction during the early 1990s, when it had a 2m tonne annual carbon footprint. Since 1996 it has achieved a 60% reduction in this footprint, and the next goal is an 80% reduction from 1996 levels.

While BT accounts for .7% of the UK’s electricity output it purchases 7% of the available renewable electricity.

Some Like it Hot: Turn That Cooling off!

What about BT’s purchasing power? Tuppen said BT has shown leadership in forcing suppliers to be more energy efficient, a theme Steve O’Donnel expanded upon. Telecoms equipment, after all, is generally air-cooled. O’Donnel explained:

“Its about how hot the equipment can run, allowing it to work in a sensible way. Make us equipment we can run at very high temperatures.”

Good stuff, if somewhat counter-intuitive. We’re (air-) conditioned to think cooler means better. Refrigeration costs however are generally higher than heat losses: at least 50% of total energy is used in refrigeration, a cost telcos have long eschewed.

“As a telephone company we have always used air-cooling. ideally we buy equipment that runs at ambient temperatures. We’re engaging with the IT vendors on this. Our entire 21st Century Network estate runs on fresh air-cooling“.

BT mandates affect major suppliers such as Cisco, HP, and Sun, but also smaller vendors. Equipment supporting BT’s 21st Century Network must be able to operate effectively at up to 50 degrees C, well above the usual 22 degree data center (O’Donnel claims the 22 number was arbitrarily created to support a particular IBM mainframe tape drive)

O’Donnel also spoke to an idea which Sun’s Whitfield Diffie, the father of democratized encryption, also strongly advocates.

“Why not use winter weather to cool equipment?”

Why not, indeed? Doing so certainly makes more sense than using air-conditioning in cold weather.

BT examines all aspects of a product’s lifecycle, from creation to disposal, in working with suppliers. The company is also currently checking all of its electric assets to ensure that anything which isn’t actually doing something is switched off.

BT wants equipment to be always available rather than always on.

Telecoms Outgreens IT

O’Donnel refused to name BT’s “most green” suppliers but he was certainly scathing about IT companies performance in this area compared to BT’s.

“Traditional data center suppliers are more interested in tweaking the edges. I think we’re light years ahead of HP and IBM in in electrical and mechanical systems.”

Talking about earlier equipment purchasing, in a 15 year cycle, O’Donnel said decisions taken “back then are albatrosses around our necks.”

BT breaks down energy consumption like so: With legacy equipment 50% on power, 50% on refrigeration. The company estimates it can save 85% of the refrigeration costs, and between 20/35% of the actual power consumed.

AC/DC and Compliance

A signficant contributory factor to power inefficiency is the repeated transformation from alternating current (AC) to direct current (DC) supplies and back again. Today, and in future, all BT data center equipment will be DC-supplied.

BT isn’t mucking about. The firm is, for example, carrying out a full audit of all backups across the company, ensuring it is only backing up data when it should, and only keeps data for as long as it needs to. We’re not talking Sarbanes-Oxley 404 here, but a different set of compliance constraints for records management.

When the biggest companies in the world start talking about the efficiencies and green characteristics of tape versus disc you know the world has changed.

“Why leave it all on disc? Tape is the greenest storage medium.”

Part 2 to follow …