Microsoft’s Environmental Chief Sees Opportunity for IT to Help the Planet

REDMOND, Wash. — April 21, 2009 — For Rob Bernard, a fork is not just a fork. It’s a way to help create change at Microsoft — and lead the way to a more sustainable planet.

Rob Bernard, Microsoft’s chief environmental strategist, says Microsoft is unusually well-positioned to help its customers and partners change their impact on the environment.

Bernard is Microsoft Corp.’s first chief environmental strategist. Microsoft, like most companies with cafes and lunchrooms, used to generate enormous piles of waste by throwing out napkins, cups, plates — and plastic forks, spoons, and knives. But in July 2008, in response to interest from employees to adopt less wasteful ways, Microsoft switched to compostable kitchenware and started composting food waste. These moves have slashed the company’s waste stream from its cafes and break rooms nearly in half. “It’s made a significant improvement,” says Bernard, standing in line in one of the company’s cafes — compostable plate and utensils in hand. “It really shows what you can do when you empower people to figure out how to create change.”

Bernard’s work is aimed at benefitting the environment both inside the company and through partners and customers. Since taking on the new post of chief environmental strategist in November 2007, Bernard has helped organize and focus what had been Microsoft’s sincere but somewhat fragmented approach to environmental sustainability. His goal: drive innovations for a sustainable planet.

Bernard says Microsoft has a rare ability to transform the way consumers, companies and others manage their impact on the environment. “We’re one of a very small set of companies that can really have a massive impact,” says Bernard, an avid hiker and father of three. “I’ve been here 10 years now and seen us successfully tackle really big challenges before, so I think we have an opportunity to lead.”

In Bernard’s view, that leadership takes three forms. One is in obvious ways such as Microsoft’s work to set its own environmental house in order. Hence, the move to compostables in its cafes. Now, all pieces used are biodegradable. The cups, plates and bowls are made from a paperboard product with a corn-based resin coating to make it liquid-resistant. Spoons, forks and knives use a material made from potatoes. That’s a huge improvement over previous practices, which each year saw the company dispose of and incinerate some 16 million drink cups alone.

So thorough has been Microsoft’s foodservice makeover, in fact, that its cafes were the first corporate eateries to earn certified “green restaurant” status from the Green Restaurant Association, a Boston-based organization that works with restaurants to reduce their waste flow, use sustainable foods and reduce energy consumption.

Beyond that, Bernard has helped lead company efforts to understand its companywide carbon impact. To reduce its power use in datacenters, for instance, Microsoft has invested in efficient power and cooling systems, optimized server designs, and kept a close eye on daily power use. The company is also looking at ways to more directly incorporate outside air into its ventilation systems and working with vendors to expand the operating temperature range of servers, a move that provides a big efficiency boost by eliminating cooling equipment. Better site selection will also help determine where datacenters can be built in places with a smaller carbon footprint, such as outside regions that rely heavily on energy resources such as coal. And Microsoft is developing a new generation of “modular” datacenters that allow creation of precisely sized datacenters that reduce waste by using only the servers that actually are needed.

Now, says, Bernard, better energy use and other sustainability efforts have become part of the company’s annual company-wide planning efforts. “Environmental sustainability is now part of the process,” he says. “We have goals and tools and objectives for the company.”

Microsoft’s second environmental focus is becoming its research in natural systems and how the planet is changing under the stresses of what most scientists agree is human-caused climate change. Microsoft Research invests heavily each year in environment-related projects. For example, the Computational Ecology and Environmental Sciences group is researching topics such as the storage of carbon in forests, and the creation of tools that allow real-time studies of how certain animal species respond to environmental changes.

In another case, Microsoft has partnered with the Clinton Foundation in what is called Project Two Degrees. Named for a United Nations study that cites 2 degrees Celsius (about 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit) as the maximum allowable change in global temperature before disastrous results occur, Project Two Degrees gives cities tools to measure and reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Using a software tool, city managers can establish a baseline for their greenhouse gas emissions, manage inventories, create action plans, track the effectiveness of their emissions reduction programs, and share experiences with each other. It’s the first global, multilingual emissions measurement toolset available 24 hours a day, seven days a week via the Web. Its goal is to create standardized measurement techniques and create a forum where cities can share best practices about saving energy and reducing emissions.

But what really sets Microsoft apart from other corporations that are trying to be “greener,” says Bernard, is its ability to deploy technology that can help thousands of companies reduce their energy needs or take other steps to lessen their impact on the planet. “That’s really a unique asset,” he says. “We have this enormous partner base, 400,000 partners, and through them we can put technology in the hands of consumers, businesses and governments that can really accelerate efforts to gain energy efficiency or reduce the impact on the environment.”

To help those partners Microsoft is creating software tools that boost energy efficiency. Microsoft’s latest operating system, Windows 7, includes power management features that allow users — from large corporations to individual consumers — to reduce energy use and their impact on the environment. And in February the company launched an Environmental Dashboard for its Microsoft Dynamics AX business-management software. It gives businesses an easy way to gather and analyze data about energy use and greenhouse gas emissions and adapt business operations so they are more efficient and more environmentally friendly. Businesses can use the dashboard out of the box. Plus, partners now can create new customer-specific applications.

In other cases, Microsoft technology helps create new “green” business models. In California, solar power installer Sungevity uses technology built with Microsoft Virtual Earth to streamline the estimate process. Virtual Earth images and Sungevity software calculate a home’s roof size, the amount of sun it receives, and the impact of any nearby trees or buildings. That helps Sungevity reduce one of the big expenses in home solar installations — the cost of sending an estimator to a location to draw up a bid.

Italian carmaker Fiat, meanwhile, now is selling autos equipped with ecoDrive — a system built with Microsoft technology that helps motorists understand how driving habits change a car’s emissions. Motorists plug a USB memory stick into a dashboard slot, and the ecoDrive system uploads driving and emissions information to the stick; then, when the stick is plugged into a PC, special software charts a driver’s patterns and offers advice on how to cut auto emissions.

But there is so much more to be done, says Bernard. Today, he says, 85 percent of company chief information officers don’t see their firm’s energy bills. If they did, they’d be much more motivated to institute energy-reduction measures not just for environmental reasons, but to save money. “Accountability is the key,” says Bernard. “Until people in businesses are accountable for measuring and understanding their energy consumption, they won’t be motivated to have the impact they could have.”

In the meantime, Microsoft is working to reduce its own resource consumption, learn more about the planet, and help partners and customers reduce their impact on the environment. In an e-mail sent to employees in March, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer outlined company goals that include reducing carbon emissions per unit of revenue by at least 30 percent by 2012 (compared with 2007 levels). To achieve that, Ballmer said he backed improving energy efficiency in buildings and operations, reducing air travel, and increasing use of renewable energy. Ballmer also committed the company to reducing the environmental impact of its supply chain and continuing to invest in programs that reduce the environmental impact of Microsoft operations, including its waste stream, water use, and use of materials.

Bernard thinks those goals are achievable. “We have some amazingly talented people here,” says Bernard. “They’re going to come up with some great things, and really help us tackle our environmental challenges.”

Even a humble compostable fork can make a big difference. Its use at Microsoft has prompted other corporations to look into “greening” up their foodservice operations, says Michael Oshman, executive director of the Green Restaurant Association. “They say to us, ‘Microsoft did it, so maybe we can too,’” says Oshman. “Microsoft’s commitment has made a big difference.”

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