Tech's looming battle against rising energy costs

Green is not enough: How IT can (and must) lead the energy-savings charge across the entire enterprise

Removing energy costs from the entire supply chain

Manufacturing, storing, and shipping goods take a lot of energy. IT can reduce the energy needed at each of these supply-chain phases, says Gartner's Mingay. Many logistics firms, such as the US Postal Service, already invest in IT to create the most fuel-efficient delivery schedules possible. And the use of electronic signatures can save a ton of fuel when sending documents around, as Fidelity Investments has found. But IT can help even earlier in the process, by reducing the amount of items to be stored and delivered, Mingay says.

"There are many more opportunities to dematerialize [reduce materials used] and even [eliminate physical] content in a product or service," he says. For example, the shift away from CDs to MP3 files dispensed with huge energy costs, as will the move away from DVDs to downloaded or Internet-streamed video that Mingay sees coming soon. And Hewlett-Packard has reduced its laptop packing material by 65 percent, cutting down on fuel consumed for delivery, as well as lowering warehousing energy costs by packaging the notebooks in a messenger bag in which buyers can tote their laptops.

Another such opportunity is for IT to enable print-on-demand services and advanced materials manufacturing, Mingay says. "Print-on-demand will enable you to go to a local bookstore, tell them which book you want, and they will print it and bind it right then and there," Mingay says. "There is no waste, and you remove a huge amount of energy and carbon that comes from shipping books around the world." That lowers publishers' energy costs.

But the same approach can also reduce the costs in almost any company that uses printed materials, Mingay notes. IT can help the company save big by using print-on-demand internally, so only the necessary documents are printed. IT can enable this simply by providing the infrastructure for a library of PDF documents that users print locally when needed or contracting with online service providers of such electronic documents. This approach reduces the need for warehousing, which in turn reduces the need for energy-sapping climate control systems to preserve the paper. Delivery costs from the warehouse are also eliminated.

In the longer term, emerging technologies such as digital instant manufacturing machines can apply the print-on-demand concept to other goods, notes Laitner of the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy. These machines, which look like a large-scale ink-jet printer, deposit finely powdered droplets by micronozzles, then fuse them together, layer by layer, into a 3D object.

"You can make anything from cell phone covers to bone replacement for medical use," Laitner said. "Because you can make a product on demand, people are able to pick it up closer to where it is produced instead of wasting money transporting it between coasts."

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