Photo by Gary Cook

I live in San Francisco, and yesterday I discovered that my local market has stopped selling Gulf Coast seafood. Before BP’s deep sea oil rig exploded and sunk off the coast of Louisiana, the shop stocked shrimp and blue crab, which make up a big portion of the state’s US$2.8 billion commercial fishing industry. But oil deposits and traces of chemical dispersants used to help clean up the spill are appearing in blue crab larvae in Louisiana, a harbinger of contamination making its way into the food chain.

Unfortunately for the Gulf’s fishing and shrimping economy, many of us will choose not to feed ourselves from its supply for a while, but the decision to stop feeding our voracious addiction to petroleum with deep sea deposits is more controversial. Even as the fishing industry, wildlife, and wetlands that were hit by the Gulf spill remain in a desperate condition, offering a bleak reality check on the consequences of our oil dependence, one can still hear “Drill Baby, Drill!” echoing through the halls of Congress.

The United States currently consumes over 18 million barrels of oil per day, making it the largest global consumer of the waning resource.  Nearly 60 percent of that oil is imported from other parts of the world. The U.S.’s remaining domestic supply is largely underground and out at sea, and much of it is located in the Gulf of Mexico and other sensitive marine habitats and fishing economies like the Alaskan coast.

Our thirst for oil is getting harder to quench, and we are now searching ever deeper into the earth and oceans in pursuit of the last drops. In arctic waters off of Greenland, plans to drill are underway despite the recency of the Gulf’s hard-learned lesson. The Greenpeace ship Esperanza is currently positioned off the coast of Greenland to confront Cairn Energy, the first company granted permission to exploit the area.

Despite all warning signs, chanters of “Drill Baby, Drill!” are not going to give up until a system-wide societal shift — off of oil — renders their mantra obsolete. But where do we find the tools, know-how, and scalability to transform us from gas-guzzlers into clean energy consumers and thus avoid another environmental and economic catastrophe?

Out With the Oil, In With Cool IT

While politicians and oil execs perpetuate reckless endeavors to exploit the world’s scant and hard-to-access oil reserves, another powerful industry group is building the tools to end this addiction once and for all. Information Technology solutions can make the U.S. and the world more efficient, less carbon intensive, and less reliant on fossil fuels. With bigger investments, strong political advocacy, and a serious jumpstart to the development of technological solutions, IT companies can help us end our oil addiction. Here’s how:

Electric Vehicles and the Smart Grid

Transportation, oil’s greatest co-conspirator, needs an overhaul. Widespread adoption of electric vehicles can get us to gas-free transportation, but not without the help of smart systems built by IT companies. It has been estimated that petroleum use in the U.S. alone could be reduced by roughly one-third, from 20 million to 13 million barrels a day if half of the country’s cars and trucks go electric in the next 20 years.

But plugging in to cut fossil fuel reliance necessitates a guarantee of renewable energy to power the grid, so we don’t trade one fossil fuel (oil) for another (coal). IT solutions to the rescue.

An IT-enabled smart grid can ensure that electric transportation is powered by renewable sources of energy, and competitors Cisco, IBM, Google, and other IT giants are already leading the charge. IT companies are building the communication platforms and network management systems for monitoring, analyzing and controlling power consumption for vehicle charging. They are also providing commercial and home energy management technologies.

IBM is working on the integration of intermittent energy sources, like wind, into a smart grid system that supports plug-in vehicles, and Cisco has predicted that the smart grid will represent a US$20 billion market over the next five years. Meanwhile, partnerships between heavy hitters, such as Ford and Microsoft and Google and GM, are proving that vehicle manufacturers and IT companies will make good bedfellows in a clean energy economy. As these companies team up to automate vehicle charging and run the communication systems of electric vehicles, perhaps the car manufacturers will enjoy working with IT innovators better than with their old cronies in the oil industry.

Mobility On-Demand via IT

Reducing oil consumption can be as easy as joining a car-share program, or even better, learning to ride a bike. Now, IT technologies are making it feasible to thoroughly integrate vehicle and bicycle sharing into transportation systems by powering car and bike-sharing networks that allow consumers to access real-time information about the location and availability of the form of transportation needed.

Barcelona’s popular Bicing service was recently enhanced by the addition of an iPhone app, which uses GPS to pinpoint the user’s location and help them find a convenient bike station for pick-up or drop-off, saving time on both ends. The app also displays Google Maps with interactive navigation. In the first two months alone, the program registered over 30,000 users.

Congestion Pricing

Congestion pricing, deployed primarily in Europe thus far, places a user charge on vehicles entering and exiting the central part of a city during peak hours to reduce congestion and pollution. An integrated IT system recognizes vehicles and bills them accordingly. Stockholm’s system was developed in collaboration with IBM, and it reduced 25 percent of the city’s vehicle traffic during its first month of operation in 2006.  London, Milan, and Singapore have deployed similar systems, and New York and San Francisco are hoping to follow suit, but must first overcome local and state political hurdles.

Telecommuting

What was it that Mark Twain said about San Francisco? That the shortest business trip he ever took was to Cisco’s TelePresence Suite? Something like that.

Remote collaboration using IT videoconferencing like Cisco’s TelePresence and Webex or Adobe Connect can replace a significant portion of global business travel. Not only do these technologies make you feel like you’re on the deck of the Starship Enterprise, they also seriously cut vehicle miles traveled by allowing business to be conducted face-to-face through virtual meetings. According to analysis conducted by Cisco, the life-cycle energy savings of its remote collaboration product offerings, and found that two meetings per week for an entire year using TelePrescence is equivalent to the greenhouse gas emissions expended in a single one-way trip from San Francisco to Heathrow or Tokyo.

Teleworking, i.e. working from home, is one of the greatest opportunities to cut energy expenditures through the substitution of IT technologies for work-related oil consumption. The Telework Research Network estimates that if just 2 percent of employees in the U.S. worked from home half of the time, over 280 million barrels of oil would be saved.  

Smart Transport

Energy use for the transport of goods by land, air, and sea represents 20 percent of the world’s total energy consumption. The Climate Group’s SMART 2020 report calculates the energy savings of software and hardware tools that improve the design of networks, route optimization, and logistics of the global movement of goods. Global emissions savings from IT-enabled transport efficiencies and storage can achieve energy savings worth US$441.7 billion.

Rising fuel costs and pressure from initiatives like the Supply Chain Leadership Coalition, a group of multinational companies that require suppliers to track and report greenhouse gas emissions, are creating a market for IT supply chain management and logistics software. Many IT Companies, including Oracle and SAP sell supply chain management software to help companies assess the carbon intensity of their logistics and across all operations.

[Photo credit: Gary Cook]