Greening the grid: Big Brother or big savings?

Homeowners tend to cast a cold eye on their electric utilities, particularly when it’s time to pay the bill or when the power fails. So it’s no wonder that a new clean technology initiative from the utility industry called Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) has consumer advocates suspicious with some calling it a Big Brother-like intrusion into folks’ homes.

In a nutshell, AMI aims to help conserve energy by enabling two-way communications between the home and the utility through a wireless network of smart meters and smart devices in the home. Picture a smart air conditioner that the utility can turn down remotely when an over-extended power grid starts straining.

AMI will let consumers and utilities work together to conserve energy consumption in the home during peak energy demand periods. It will also let homeowners see when, how and why they’re sucking down kilowatts so that they can make smarter, greener lifestyle decisions. Consumers benefit by saving energy and getting discount rates for playing ball with the utilities. Utilities benefit by avoiding brown-outs and black-outs during demand response periods.

Despite the obvious merits, it’s a potentially huge PR challenge that the utility industry has yet to take seriously, which is unfortunate because the critics are on the wrong side of the debate this time, IMO.

What’s not to like? Opponents claim it’s a waste of ratepayer money that hasn’t proven it will reduce electricity usage. They say that fluctuating time-of-day pricing will give utilities the opportunity to raise, not lower, prices. And they don’t like the idea of giving the power company the power to reach in and have their way with your home. Ratepayer advocates such as TURN, The Utility Reform Network, have already launched aggressive legal and political campaigns against the initiative in California and elsewhere.

As a skeptic who never likes to pass up an opportunity to stick it to The Man, I should be wary too. But homes and buildings are worse polluters and energy guzzlers than cars. And ever-growing energy demand, wars for oil and climate change are just a few good reasons for taking risks on new technologies that stand to conserve energy in homes. It will be interesting to see how well the utility industry can counter the ratepayer backlash and rally support for its new initiative.

{Disclosure: Beaupre client, Ember, makes wireless chips that enable AMI applications}

UPDATE: Celeste LeCompte at GigaOM covers the issue from the home appliance perspective.
UPDATE: The Wall Street Journal also weighs in.

Greenwashers versus mob rule

An interesting battle is being waged through social media channels between General Motors and electric vehicle (EV)enthusiasts, who believe GM’s recent embrace of hybrid cars is just another disingenuous attempt to greenwash its image. It’s a great example of how social media has not only given the little guy a voice against corporate interests, but how the little guy can now drown out the big guy, sometimes to a tyrannical extent.

The EVs cite as evidence the Sony Pictures documentary Who Killed The Electric Car? It chronicles a sinister collusion between auto makers, Big Oil and Big Brother to terminate the fledgling electric car industry before it could take hold. Beyond its theatrical and DVD release, the movie got even wider distribution as a viral video via YouTube, social networks and blogs. And it didn’t help GM’s cause when general manager Bob Lutz was widely quoted throughout the blogosphere saying “Global warming is a total crock of sh*t.”

Conspiracy theories and impassioned rants soon followed on social nets and forums such as the Yahoo!Groups electric vehicle group. EV activists descended on auto shows, policy making events and GM press conferences. An EV movement was born.

GM countered with social sites like gmnext, where people were encouraged to submit media and comments to help GM answer questions like “How can we best address global energy issues we’ll face for the next 100 years?”

Nice try. But the Rainforest Action Network, which called it “one of the biggest and most ambitious online corporate greenwashing campaigns,” quickly rallied its supporters to post photos and comments. GM was forced to kill “the conversation” on the site immediately.

The on-going debate has been fascinating. GM argues they can’t win with the EVs … that they’re investing billions developing the Chevy Volt by 2010. Yet skeptics say it’s red herring vaporware. The activists counter with the fact that GM built a perfectly good electric car a decade ago, so what’s the hold up?

I suspect the truth lies somewhere in the middle. I haven’t forgiven trusted GM since I bought my sh*t box Chevy Citation back in the 80s. Nor do I suffer well the tinfoil hat fringe of community activism. That’s what’s great about the web. Activists can help keep The Man honest, conspiracy theories can forment, and everyone has a voice. But is this always a good thing, or sometimes tyranny of the majority?

Going green without getting a black eye

The International Herald Tribune today reported that technology companies are increasingly trying to go green by cutting data center energy. It turns out as little as 30 to 40 percent of the power flowing into a data center is used to run computers. The rest goes to year-round air conditioning which keeps hardware cool. Even a 1-megawatt data center can accumulate $17 million in electric bills over a 10-year life span.

I’m pleased action is being taken; this is one of the important issues of our time with massive “pay it forward” impact. Unfortunately, most of the technology industry hasn’t been on top of its game in the area of sustainability. Thankfully, some players – like IBM, AMD and HP – have demonstrated leadership. More companies need to ponder and build support around this issue.

The Herald Tribune article included some interesting comments relative to communications, public relations and going green. “So with energy costs high and environmental friendliness making for good public relations, more technology companies are touting ways they are “greening” data centers.” Reporter Brian Bergstein went on to say, “But it is a lot easier to put out a press release than to build a data center with a significantly smaller environmental footprint.”

There’s the rub. As professional communicators, we must lead and inspire management to approach corporate “green alignment” with thoughtfulness and credibility. The key is to build consensus around a legitimate green position, back it up with substance and not overplay it.

As tech companies start wearin’ the environmental green, they have to take care not to strut more stuff than they actually have. Dell’s “Plant a tree” initiative, for example, had a public backlash. Publications such as Computing said the initiative looked more like a marketing ploy than a serious carbon-neutral program. Dell didn’t say whether it was donating any funding to the program to cover the emissions generated by manufacturing its computers. This would have been the more substantive move.

The lesson to remember is that “green alignment” must be a legitimate outgrowth of a company’s core business. Better to do a little bit in this area – and make it real – than over-promise, grandstand and have it linked to vaporware.

Let’s make sure technology companies go green without getting a black eye.