Telcos casting themselves as green

Bell Canada, the largest telephone and Internet company in Canada, put out a press release today promoting two tools that help customers quantify and better appreciate the carbon savings that come from using certain telecommunications products. Hoping to tap rising concern over the size of corporate carbon footprints, BCE has made available a “Smart Metering Guide” and “Green Meeting Calculator” that, according to the company, “shows how virtual meetings through Bell Conference Solutions can make a real difference in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and cutting travel costs.” The calculator lets customers measure the amount of greenhouse gas emissions they can cut through virtual meetings. “A business can reduce emissions by about 150 kilograms using a two-hour Web conference instead of a plane flight between Toronto and Montreal for one person,” the company states. “That’s equal to emissions produced by lighting and heating an average Canaidan household for eight days.”

Bell says its own employees avoided about 1.7 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions in 2006 — equivalent to the annual emissions of 344,000 mid-size cars — by opting to use teleconferencing instead of travelling by car or airplane to meetings.

Now, this is obviously a self-serving announcement aimed at milking the public’s concern over global warming. It’s no different than Nortel during the SARS crisis in Toronto attempting to promote its teleconferencing software as a way to avoid global travel that could expose employees to the infectious disease. Same goes for those exploiting fears over a possible Avian flu outbreak. The fact is Bell isn’t launching any new products, it’s merely doing a better job of explaining how its existing products can replace travel and thus cut down on carbon emissions. It should have explained this years ago. At least now it’s offering a way for customers to measure the impact, and you can’t fault them for that.

That said, Bell is doing more — particularly in the area of energy management. It has a pilot project in the Toronto area that’s testing the use of home energy-management software that rides over its broadband network. It’s a slick product, giving homeowners the ability to better measure how they use electricity and remotely control (through a work computer or BlackBerry, for example) what is using power and what isn’t in the home. As Ontario moves to a smart meter system that enables tiered pricing for peak and off-peak electricity use, this kind of interface will be quite valuable. Bell also plans to sell the service to utilities that want to become demand-response aggregators. So, in this sense, Bell is truly embracing “cleantech.”

There’s considerable debate out there over whether homeowners and businesses will use this kind of energy-management platform. Some say it’s too complicated; that people don’t have time to set their energy preferences or respond to market signals; that people who drive SUVs and readily pay higher gas prices don’t care about saving $10 a month on their hydro bill. I disagree — only because over the years I’ve seen how people have taken to things like Internet banking, online bill payment and presentment, and VoIP services such as Skype. These all have learning curves and require effort on the part of users. But if using them benefits us in some way — whether to save money or offer convenience — a significant portion of the population will eventually embrace it.

Curious to know your thoughts.

2 thoughts on “Telcos casting themselves as green”

  1. I find Bell’s energy management platform particularly interesting (from what I’ve read in the article you linked to back in February). It certainly sounds very impressive technically.

    However, I do wonder if a big part of it is trying to solve a bit of a non-problem. As impressive as the idea of a homeowner controlling their appliances from work is, is there really a benefit? After all, surely it would be better to consistently switch unnecessary equipment off before leaving the house, rather than leaving it on and then (maybe) switching it off remotely…? I, for one, can’t think of a single bit of equipment in my house that I could see myself wanting to turn off remotely – I wouldn’t leave the house for long without turning off the lights, the tv etc. I’m guessing that most people who are aware of their energy consumption would also turn off all unnecessary equipment before leaving the house, but would not want constant things like their refrigerator being turned off ever, remotely or not.

    However, this is not to say that domestic demand response of some sort is a bad idea, but it certainly seems a lot more realistic for people to reduce their energy consumption when requested if they are actually in their house at the time.

    Also, I have no doubts about the benefits of domestic smart metering. My company develops a software package for energy data analysis, specifically energy interval data. Our experience so far, although only with non-domestic buildings, is that there are huge benefits to be achieved from a simple regular routine of analyzing interval data to look at patterns of energy consumption (finding waste), and to track improvements in energy performance. That may sound a little technical for the average domestic energy user, but the concept certainly isn’t – at the simplest level it’s basically about building an awareness of how much energy you use at different times of the day and on days of the week – that awareness alone can lead to a dramatic cut in an energy bill.

  2. Every conference service has a calculator, so let’s get to the qurstion of demand response. To achieve the DR levels necessary, most utilities will need direct load control. The phone company isn’t doing anything new; it is making a preemptive play against broadband over powerlines, among other competitors. Energy Priorities had an article about this a year or so ago.

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