Monday Jan 04, 2010

Green Education: What We Need

Over the holidays USA Today had an article talking about the sudden rise of green-oriented minor and major programs at universities. According to Paul Rowland, Executive Director of Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, two factors are driving the surge: students want the courses, and employers want the trained students.

When I give talks on our book "Citizen Engineer" at universities this topic always comes up. In specific, we discuss what employers are looking for in these students.

The first point is clear from the article: energy is a "sweet spot". The examples at Illinois State, MIT and UC Berkeley all centered on energy. For the first time in decades there is a wave of innovation in this sector, and not only in companies that generate energy, but also those that depend on it for their operations or products. We certainly fall into this latter bucket at Sun, and more of our engineering jobs come with a requirement of understanding electrical energy and how our electricity infrastructure works in real life.

The second point relates to general sustainability degrees. While these were barely mentioned in the article, we are starting to see some students come from programs with majors in sustainability, and I hear of many universities considering adding such a degree.

My feeling on this has become pretty clear cut: a minor degree in sustainability is a wonderful idea, a major is not. We need more awareness of environmental needs and solutions in all of our roles in business: our engineers, chemists, lawyers, business people and operations teams. But the key is that these are all highly specialized roles, and the people need to be able to do these first. I want the major to be in these areas, and will highly value a minor in sustainability.

The proof, of course, is in the pudding. At Sun we have no sustainability generalists, and I don't anticipate that we would ever hire one. In every real-world case we've always needed someone with training or experience in a specific expertise.

To sum up, my advice to universities is always the same: energy is a great major or minor, but be careful of majors in general sustainability. Be world class in the things you already do, and layer in sustainability minor to make those folks even more marketable.

Tuesday Nov 17, 2009

Updated Version of Chemicals Paper

Here's an updated version of the chemicals paper. Thanks to various folks for comments, including the Sun team, Ken Geiser at UMass-Lowell, and Kathrin Winkler at EMC.

Wednesday Nov 11, 2009

Paper on US Chemical Policy

Federal chemical policy in the US has been fairly stagnate for years, but there is increased discussion about the need for new policy and what shape it should be.

One of the most important changes in the last couple of decades is the increased role of product manufacturers in the chemicals ecosystem. Manufacturers are now held responsible for the chemicals used in their products, for the sources of those chemicals, and for takeback and recycling.

In order to raise awareness of the increased challenges to product manufacturers and the possible opportunities in new, federal chemical legislation, I've laid out the basic issues and some proposals in a paper entitled "US Chemical Policy - A Product Manufacturer's Perspective".

This is part of an ongoing discussion, so please send me any feedback.

Tuesday Oct 20, 2009

I'll Be the Judge of That

Two different news items recently led me into the same train of thought: we are all increasingly in the business of judging Goodness, and of being so judged. I purposefully capitalized Goodness here, because I mean it in the highest sense of the word. This probably sounds vague, so let me use the examples to explain.

The first item is from the NYTimes, and discusses the conundrum caused by a proposed solar plant in Nevada. While the plant will produce copious free energy, it will also require over a billion gallons of fresh water a year, or over 20% of the water supply for the valley in which it is to be cited.

This is a classic tradeoff that we're going to hear more and more about. What are we willing to give up in exchange for cleaner energy? Many types of solar power need water, as shown above. But how much water is too much? How many dead migratory birds are too many at a potential wind farm location? How much car safety should we sacrifice for better mileage? How much can the view from the shoreline be impacted by offshore wind farms before it crosses the line? There are tons of these questions, there are going to be more, and they are going to get more and more complex.

Presumably you can see why I described this as judging Goodness. We might try to reduce decisions such as these to financial terms, but its hard to put a price on scenic beauty or a single bird. And your answer may not be the same as someone else's. I'll react differently to a wind farm I can see from my deck than one that's a thousand miles away in a place I'll likely never visit. How we approach these decisions reflect our personal or group morals.

The second example isn't about tradeoffs, but about people trying to quantify the Goodness of others. You see this all of the time: green rankings of companies, ethical lists of schools, etc. For example, Sun was recently included in the Newsweek green ranking, coming in 14th out of 500. (Note: I'm not singling out the Newsweek ranking - there are dozens of examples I could have used and this just happened to be a recent, well publicized one.)

This, however, is even trickier than the task above. We're not talking about an either/or situation, we're talking about trying to capture all of the factors that make up the green-ness or ethical-ness of an organization in a single number. And to make matters worse, these the organizations being compared usually don't even do the same thing. How do you compare an airline to a consulting company? A manufacturer to a non-manufacturer? A small school in the north woods to big one in Manhattan?

But as we've seen, there's no shortage of people who feel they are up to the task. They're willing to put relative weights and scores on various sources of quantitative and qualitative data, deciding what the underlying components of "good", "green" or "ethical" should be. Sometimes we get to understand these weights and data sources, but usually we don't.

In the Newsweek case, one of the three major factors in the ranking was a "reputation survey" audit they did using unnamed CEOs and other "experts". Since Sun Microsystems is not a consumer brand and we don't advertise much, its not hard to predict that we may not score as high in that as organizations that are household names, or are use big ad budgets to tout their sustainability. Sure enough, Wal-Mart tops the list in that category followed by GE, Coke and Nike. (BTW, Wal-Mart is doing some outstanding sustainability work, but that doesn't validate the scoring methodology.)

Don't get me wrong - I'm not saying that Sun deserves to be scored or ranked higher. In fact, I'll go a step further and say that I have no moral grounds on which to judge the ethics or greenness of any organization, Sun included. I'm confident in telling you that we're using less fresh water and emitting less GHG than we were a year ago, but that's as far as I'm comfortable going. In short, who am I to judge?

So what's the alternative to rankings? I'm a huge proponent of measuring things and making the data public - that's what we've been trying to do at Sun through our CSR report, annual CDP response, OpenEco.org data and other avenues. I hope that companies, investors, and consumers are using that data to understand what we're up to, and are making better informed decisions.

As organizations are trying to exhibit more social responsibility, there is a necessary increase in moral judgement in business decisions. In light of this, my advice is simple. First, recognize that you're using moral in your decisions. Second, figure out what's important to you (not Newsweek or anyone else) for the specific decisions you have to make. Finally, gather your own data.

There are lots of things that are OK to outsource - your moral standards aren't one of them.

Monday Sep 21, 2009

OpenEco Revisited

We haven't made a ton of noise about openeco.org in the last couple of quarters, but that was probably a mistake.

One of the most frequent questions I get as Sun's Chief Sustainability Officer is how other organizations can get started on GHG reductions. The first step is to calculate your current emissions, and to get a feel for what parts of your activities (business or otherwise) are causing those emissions. This leads to one of two follow-on questions: 1) how hard can that be? or 2) that sounds really hard - I bet I need to hire a high-priced consultant.

The combined answer is that it is not trivial, but for most organizations you don't need a consultant. The math involved is not hard, but finding the right equations and coefficients isn't easy. Also, to track and measure over time you need to keep lots of data around, which can get cumbersome.

This is why we created openeco.org. It is a free, online tool that lets organizations calculate and track their emissions over time. We needed a tool for ourselves, but found that our solution was applicable to schools, churches, companies and other organizations. It knows about different locations and sources of emissions, and follows the standard, accepted protocols for doing the GHG calculations. It also lets you set goals and track your progress against them.

As you can see above, it has a good user base, with over 700 participating organizations. Whether you're working as part of a big company, small company, town government, private residence, church, or school, openeco.org can get you on the right track quickly and (very!) cheaply.

For a quick demo and tour, check out the videos below.

Kudos to Lori Duvall, who has been the main driver behind this from the beginning, to the team at CodeMagi, who have been Java programmers extraordinaire on the project, and to the Sun Eco marketing team, who has been involved since the earliest concepts.

Take a video tour of
OpenEco.org 2.0

Thursday Sep 17, 2009

Sun's 2009 CSR Report: Another Breakthrough

Under the leadership of Marcy Lynn, Sun's Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) reports have always broken new ground. We've pushed the envelope in publishing on the web, what type of data is reported, and how data is reported. Last year we changed how stakeholders interact with that data by allowing comments. And this year we've pushed the envelope again. suncsr2009-emissions.jpg

Yesterday we announced the release of Sun's 2009 CSR report. With the pending acquisition of Sun by Oracle, the focus this year turned to reporting on the key metrics we were tracking for our fiscal 2009. We also focused on how to cut the production cost of the report, and to continue to minimize the impact of printed copies. suncsr2009-water.jpg

So you'll see that this year's report is a fairly radical departure. The first half aims to present the data in a way that gets the key points across quickly and easily. The back half fills in the key details and boilerplate to adequately document the summary.

You'll notice a big drop in the narrative flow and commentary. This was one of the biggest changes: we stopped trying to write it as a coherent document. I believe people will find the data that they're interested in much more quickly, and will find they don't miss the color commentary, but we'll see!

suncsr2009-energy.jpgFinally, I'd like to recognize the groups and folks who contributed to this (this is always dangerous - I apologize ahead of time for anyone I missed). First, in addition to Marcy, other key partners in this project were Terri Bedel, Jim Mize, and Anna Eyre from the Corp Marketing team, and the gang at Celery Designs, who've worked with us for the past few years.

Second, we got strong support from groups across the company this year, including: WE (including the JLL team), HR, EH&S, Business Conduct Office, Investor Relations, Global Communities, WWOPs, Legal, Education, Employee Volunteer and Gift Matching program, Privacy office, Product takeback team, Software team, Sustainability team, and Brand marketing. Thanks to everyone who helped out this year, it was another great team effort.

Friday Sep 11, 2009

Citizen Engineer: The Book is Out!

This week our book, Citizen Engineer, made it out the online bookstores and is supposed to hit the bricks-and-mortar stores next week. The book was written by myself and Sun's CTO Greg Papadopoulos, with tons of help from John Boutelle. Of course its also important to recognize our publisher, Greg Doench, at Prentice Hall.

The website for the book is citizenengineer.org, and there are links there for buying the book at Amazon (paper or Kindle), from the publisher, and other book sellers. PDF's of the book are also available there under a Creative Commons license.

CEFinal_cover_crop_2.5in.jpg

We also plan to use the website to publish further content, publicize events related to the book, and provide forums for discussion of the book's topics (some of this is there today, and the rest will be very soon).

So why did we write this book?

After the turn of the century, Greg and I began to notice some recurring themes in our work with the engineers at Sun Microsystems and elsewhere.

First, an increasing number of engineers, especially those right out of school, were expressing a desire to "make a difference". Some had a hobby or activity they were already invested in outside of the office, while others were searching for something that would make them more fulfilled. Many were also bringing that sense into the office, and trying to see how they could use their job to make a difference beyond the bottom line of Sun.

Second, the world at large was asking more of engineers. Public knowledge about topics like recycling, copyright, privacy, and climate change translated into new demands on manufacturers of products and services, which, in turn, required new ways of thinking in engineering.

Generally this was good news: we have engineers who want to make a difference, and a public which has rising expectations of them. In 2006 Greg wrote the first blog post about this entitled Charting a Course from Recent Grad to “Citizen Engineer”, which launched a more focused discussion of Citizen Engineers and their role in the coming years.

However, as we began to discuss this more, it quickly became clear that engineers, including ourselves, had missed out on some important topics during our educations. In particular, engineers were being asked to make increasingly complex decisions about environmental impact and intellectual property, but had never had any formal training in either area.

So we set out to write Citizen Engineer with a couple of goals in mind. First, we wanted to promote the idea that engineers could, and should, take a more visible role in shaping our future world. Second, we wanted to fill in some of the basic knowledge gaps that we found to be widespread through the engineering community. Finally, we had a point of view about the role of engineering and how to approach these complex issues which we wanted to get across.

While we feel like the book does a great job of meeting these goals, engineers are in a rapidly changing environment. We hope to use the website, along with updates to the book, to try to move the discussion along and keep it current.

Tuesday Jul 07, 2009

The Cost of a Patchwork Quilt of Legislation

I've always thought that one of the most interesting and powerful aspects of the US system of government is that individual states can act as test beds for emerging areas of legislation. This is especially important to high tech, where rapid change creates new legal opportunities and issues on a regular basis. As the understanding of the new area occurs, states can enact legislation which explores the space of possible responses. At some appropriate point the federal government can then pick from the 'winners' and enact a consistent federal approach.

The problem is that this system can break down, and when it does it can be a big mess for businesses. That's the case with eWaste (i.e. the trash from end-of-life electronics), where there is a wide range of state and even local legislation springing up. Last week the WSJ documented the situation, with a good summary by Environmental Leader.

The article highlights two problems: 1) the cost of mandatory takeback and recycling, and 2) the cost of the disparate and inconsistent laws. In my case I actually think that mandatory takeback and recycling is the right answer (with appropriate details), but as I've regularly argued in DC, at some point the cost of inconsistent state and local laws far outweighs the benefits of having a mixture. And in the case of eWaste, where a reasonable and consistent regulation already exists in the EU, there's no excuse for not addressing this at a federal level today in the US.

Why is this important? The big reason is that it is a drain on innovation in this country, especially innovation driven by startups and small companies. Imagine being a small electronics company and having to deal with 50+ takeback and recycling laws and processes. We're feeling the pinch of the administrative overhead here at Sun - I can only imagine what it feels like at a smaller company.

I know that eWaste legislation isn't as appealing as GHG reductions right now, but the states aren't slowing down. So next week when I'm in DC I'm going to keep up my pitch: please pass reasonable federal eWaste legislation!

Thursday Feb 05, 2009

Mid-year CSR Update

Today Sun took an important step forward in transparency and reporting by posting an update to our 2008 CSR Report. We've posted this mid-year update for two reasons:

  1. We want to make sure we were holding ourselves accountable throughout the (reporting) year - not just during the report process at the end of the year. Over the long term we would like to move toward a reporting model where we publish timely data throughout the year rather than just once a year in a neatly packaged report. By definition, some of the data is stale by then.
  2. We're trying to sharpen our internal processes around data collection and progress measurement. With some of the CSR reporting being new in the company, if you only do it once a year its easy to talk yourself into not automating the collection and reporting process. We think in the end we can report some data more often AND at lower cost.

As far as our performance to date, I think it's fair to say we are about where we expected to be at this point in our fiscal year. There is some important data missing, data we couldn't easily uncover in time to publish a relevant update (proving the point that we have some work to do). But overall, we feel good that we are on track to meet the commitments we set for ourselves, and in some cases, surpass them.

I encourage you to read about our progress and give us your feedback by using the comments feature within the report. Providing a mid-year report and accepting in-line comments are two of the innovative features that Marcy Lynn, our CSR Director has come up with to make the report more useful and impactful - let us know what you think.

Monday Jan 05, 2009

EPA 'Cow Tax' Could Charge $175 per Dairy Cow to Curb Greenhouse Gases

Report: EPA 'Cow Tax' Could Charge $175 per Dairy Cow to Curb Greenhouse Gases

My question: are humans next?

Wednesday Nov 19, 2008

Want To Win CSR Awards?

I got a chuckle out of this.

Environmental Leader: Want To Win Awards? Write Longer Corporate Responsibility Reports

Wednesday Sep 24, 2008

If Only It Were That Easy!

Dilbert.com

Saturday Apr 05, 2008

Black, White and Shades of Green

Two different articles this week both struck the same set of nerves.

"ROHS – More harm than good?" looks at the unforeseen side effects of the EU RoHS (Reduction of Hazardous Substances) directive, especially as it applies to the use of lead in solder to manufacture computers. (Clarification: the 7% increase cited in energy usage applies to the solder applciation process, not to the computer itself as the article implies. The net effect on the computer is very small.) "The Clean Energy Scam" looks at the unforeseen effects of biofuels and goes a step farther, calling the whole thing an intentional deception of the world's population.

These articles raise a number of key points for me.

First, I've written before about the lack of magic answers, as much as we'd all love to find them. When you take any societal-scale process or product and think you've found a totally clean, side effect free, economically viable substitute for it, you're almost surely delusional. Any substitution will have other, new side effects, and we absolutely need to try to be accounting for them. (more on this below)

Second, we've got to avoid painting products and processes as "bad" or "good". Biofuels are only a scam if you believed that they didn't have any negative side effects. Everything is somewhere in the middle, its only a matter of degrees. Probably the classic case of the effect of this black-or-white mentality is nuclear power. Is it the answer to all of our energy problems? No, but it might be part of the answer. Unfortunately it got such a bad name that we stopped most of our work on it in the US, so we've lost decades of potential advancements that may have been significant.

Third, a common reaction to these scenarios is "well, only if only someone had done a complete life-cycle analysis and factored in all of the externalities, we would have known all of this ahead of time". The concept is fine and in the right direction, but there's a number of issues: 1) these analyses are amazingly complex, and we currently lack the tools to accurately do them for all but the most trivial products, 2) its very hard to factor in behavior changes by consumers, and 3) there's a core moral and societal question of the relative cost/value of these externalities. Which is worse: lead-based solder in landfills, or 7% more energy use in the solder process?

Finally, we need to be careful about passing judgement on new technologies. I believe that biofuels are going to play an important part in our long-term energy map. I also believe that those biofuels are going to be much different than the ones we are producing today. Decades of ingenuity have gone into the infrastructure, systems, cars, generators, etc that we have today. We need to let some of these new technologies mature before we pass judgement on them. Some of them may never mature, and some may look pretty bad for awhile before they do, but at this point I don't think we're in a strong enough position to be discounting any idea.

Summary:

  • There are no effect-free solutions. We need to guesstimate the effects of all potential solutions, measure their real effects if we put them into practice, and compare alternatives to the best of our collective ability.
  • We cannot afford to paint things black or white. We need to be able to differentiate a wide range of shades of green, and be willing to give new technologies some extra slack.

Tuesday Apr 01, 2008

Quick Hits from EL

A couple of quick items of note from Environmental Leader over the last week.

First, Thin Clients Trump PCs On Energy Consumption provides some real-world data on the energy advantages of thin client architectures. We've seen benefits in management overhead and security also, but more and more companies are exploring the energy benefits and getting results. I often find that people aren't aware of our thin client SunRay products or virtual desktop offerings, but these savings are real, so check 'em out if you haven't already done so.

Second, Alliance For Climate Protection Launches $300M Marketing Push talks about the launch of the new program by the Alliance for Climate Protection, and their new website wecansolveit.org. $300M for advertising to raise awareness? Man, that's a lot of money. I really find it hard to believe that's the most effective thing we can do today for the environment with $300M, but, hey, its not my dough so who am I to say.

Thursday Jan 03, 2008

Clarifying My Position

There was a bit of a scramble yesterday when Business Week put their own subtitle on my submitted op-ed. Their anti-offset interpretation brought me a bit up short, since the focus of the piece wasn't supposed to be offsets, but carbon neutrality. So clearly I had missed the mark, so thought I'd take another shot here.

First, let's start with what I believe about out our collective situation. GHG emissions and associated climate change are a major challenge, and we don't have a simple solution. We absolutely need a dramatic increase in zero and low-carbon energy sources, but we use so much energy that that won't be enough. We need improvements in basic efficiency, but that's probably going to be good for 20-40% improvement, and won't be enough either. If we want to make serious headway and still have the have the quality of life we all strive for, then we're going to need a lot more, and part of that 'more' is going to have to be some radical innovation and improvement in the design, manufacture and delivery of all of the products, services and infrastructure that make up our economy.

So the main point of my op-ed wasn't about offsets, it was about carbon neutrality. I'm talking to more and more companies whose environmental strategy is defined by a goal of being carbon neutral. They are generally doing some efficiency projects, purchasing some green energy and offsetting the rest. Is this bad to do? Of course not. Their efficiency gains help them and the atmosphere, their green energy purchases help grow the investment in even more green energy, and if they bought quality offsets, those should spur further GHG reductions somewhere in the economy. These are all good things - we're doing them, too - but I personally don't believe they'll get us where we need to get to. So if carbon neutrality spurs people to action, that's a good step, but I don't believe it is sufficient, and here's why.

From the examples in my Business Week piece, if Toyota uses their environmental efforts solely towards carbon neutrality, they never build a Prius. Same goes for the Sun, WalMart and GE examples. So is carbon neutrality bad in these cases? Not necessarily, but it is very important to understand that the positive impact that these companies could have on the environment is way way bigger than what is measured by the carbon accounting that defines 'carbon neutrality' today. It is possible that resources or focus are being diverted away from the big impact in order to be 'carbon neutral', and I'm worried that, in some cases, this may be happening today.

So I believe that if you care about the environment, you want the bulk of Toyota's focus to be on designing cars that can be built and operated far more efficiently. And the good news is that there's a great way to say "thank you" to Toyota and others, which is to buy their products when they make sense for you. Many of you have done that, which is way cool. Businesses also buy tons of products and services, so this can apply to them as well. I've seen some really great ideas for greening corporate car fleets recently (with good financial returns, btw), so Toyota is being rewarded by corporations as well. This is where the virtuous cycle that I discussed lies - a robust market for environmentally positive innovation drives an increase in that innovation, which helps grow demand in the market and so forth.

Summary: carbon neutrality is a step in the right direction, but for many companies, its only a very small part of the overall impact they could have. It is in the best interest of those companies, as well as our collective best interest, that they take a broad view and prioritize appropriately across all of their potential environmental opportunities.

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