Information Systems for Environmental Sustainability

How IT can make the world a greener place

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New Research on Energy and Carbon Management Systems (ECMS)

Information systems for managing energy and carbon emissions data are critical to corporate environmental sustainability efforts.

Yet there is a lack of research on how these systems are adopted, used, implemented, etc.

To shed some light on this topic, I decided to explore how organizations are implementing and applying ECMS. Together with my colleague Ryan Whisnant, we looked at two different systems in two different organizations to identify patterns of use and make recommendations for practice.

Here’s the abstract and a link to the SSRN paper (a revised version of which is forthcoming at the Journal of Industrial Ecology):

This article examines an important class of information system (IS) that serves as the foundation for corporate energy and greenhouse gas accounting: energy and carbon management systems (ECMS). Investors, regulators, customers, and employees increasingly demand that organizations provide information about their organizational energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. However, there is little transparency about how organizations use ECMS to meet such demands. To shed light on ECMS implementation and application, we collected extensive qualitative interview data from two service-sector organizations: one that uses a spreadsheet-based ECMS and another that implemented an ECMS provided by a third-party vendor. Our analysis of collected data revealed numerous challenges in the areas of business processes, managerial capabilities, data capture and integration, and data quality. Though our results derive from only two organizations and require confirmation in large-sample surveys, we provide several general recommendations for organizations regarding ECMS. We also provide suggestions for future studies to build on our tentative results. Link:

While this paper represents an important early step in this research stream, much more needs to be done. In particular, one of the most important next steps would be to examine the business value implications of these systems.

Continue reading

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Visit to Mauna Loa Observatory

I just returned from the Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences (HICSS) on the Big Island.

While there, I decided to take an extra day to visit the Mauna Loa Observatory (MLO) located on the Mauna Loa Volcano.

As this is a research facility, I was fortunate to get access after contacting MLO Station Chief John Barnes (Thanks John).

Here’s me at 11,141 ft, chugging more air due to the reduced oxygen content.


MLO is an important baseline for atmospheric CO2 measurement and is home to the famous Keeling Curve (here’s an interesting historical account from the American Institute of Physics). Physical scientist Aidan Colton showed me the original Keeling instrument and described its operation (IR spectrophotometry: measurement of reflection or transmission properties of a material as a function of wavelength). Here it is:


Fast-forward to the digital age, and here’s the new equipment that is better-faster-cheaper:


In addition to C02, I also got a great overview of solar radiation monitoring. Thanks Ben and Greg.

Concentrations of greenhouse gas CO2 in the atmosphere are exceeding 400 parts per million (ppm) for the first time in human history. Given the connection between CO2 and global warming, we are entering uncharted waters for human life on earth.

We can’t all visit Mauna Loa to see CO2 measurement first-hand. But we can collaborate to find systemic ways to reduce CO2 emissions and make daily choices that are climate positive.


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Many Large US Companies Internally Price Carbon

Do U.S. companies view energy and carbon emissions management as being strategic, and are they taking actions to back this up?

On the one hand, business lobbying groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce don’t think government should be involved in pricing carbon emissions:

In a letter to Congress, the Chamber, which represents more than 3 million businesses, says the Clean Air Act is “not the appropriate vehicle to regulate greenhouse gas emissions” and warns the EPA’s GHG emissions limits for power plants will raise power prices with “negative implications extending to nearly every segment of the economy.”

On the other hand, CDP disclosures indicate that some major US companies appear to be self-regulating:

Twenty-nine major publicly traded companies based in or operating in the U.S. disclosed an internal price on carbon pollution to CDP (formerly known as the Carbon Disclosure Project) in 2013, detailing both the risk and potential business opportunity for early action by their companies.

What does this mean in practice? It’s possible that these 29 firms (and possibly others which price carbon but chose not to disclosure it) are using these prices in investment decisions. This means that these companies are taking actions to back up beliefs about carbon emissions pricing and the impact on the cost of doing business going forward. It also means that information systems for capturing, storing, analyzing, and reporting such data (which I call Carbon Management Systems) are becoming increasingly strategic.

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Big (Smart Meter) Data: 1 billion data points per day and counting

According to the Edison Foundation, in the U.S. alone there are over 46 million smart meters installed as of July 2013.

At a read rate of 24 per day, this equals to about 1.1 billion data points per day, or just north of 400 billion per year.

What to do with all this data?

Greentechmedia reports that at the recent Soft Grid 2013 conference, several views were shared:

This is the beginning of a very long evolution that may or may not end in our lifetimes

- Josh Gerber, smart grid manager for San Diego Gas & Electric

You have to reach out to those customers and give them something that interests them

- Scott Young, senior director of software platforms for Silver Spring Networks

Other examples that I quote from the greentechmedia article include:

  • analyze household power usage data to help customers learn where they’re wasting energy, how different appliances are affecting their usage, and the like — in other words, to turn utilities into “trusted energy advisors” to their customers.
  • predict individual customers’ likelihood to want to sign up for load curtailment programs (demand response), or perhaps install solar panels on their property.
  • pairing third-party information of the kind you might get from the retail and customer service bid data world with the usage details … from their meters

This is a new scale of data, and extracting valuable insights will require thoughtful pairing of user needs with technological capabilities to create compelling new services. In other words, turning data into information and knowledge for better decision making. It can’t happen fast enough.

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Risky business? How about Republicans & Democrats cooperating to assess economic risks of climate change

2013-10-02 01.32.20 pm

Republican Hank Paulson, former CEO of Goldman and a Bush Treasury Secretary, Hedge fund billionaire Democrat Tom Steyer, and Democrat-Republican-Independent Michael Bloomberg are teaming on the project “Risky Business” to assess the economic impacts of climate change in the U.S.

In their own words:

Steyer, on the reaction by top government officials and money managers to his statement that climate change is the “biggest game changer of all”:

“It’s like I was saying that what’s going to make a difference in the economy is unicorns,” (source)


Everyday across America, families and businesses take out insurance policies to protect themselves against adverse risk. As a nation, why aren’t we taking this approach toward the catastrophic risks of climate change. (source)


Sea levels are rising, and the best science tells us that extreme weather events may become more frequent. (source).

So I guess it is possible for Republicans and Democrats to work together. Who knew? And what could be a more important problem to work on together than climate change?

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Making a Local Impact

I collaborated on a Tauber Project this summer with three graduate students  (Karl Nagengast, Tiffany Ho, and Jon Beck), an engineering faculty colleague (Tim Gordon), and an outstanding team at General Motors here in Michigan (special kudos to Jeffrey Johnson) to develop energy use and GHG reduction projects targeted at paint shops. Jon was on an EDF project, collaborated with the Tauber project, and produced the video describing his summer. Good impact for GM and an excellent learning experience for the students. 


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