New Tech Solutions to Old Tech’s Environmental Problems

Lest we forget, with all that occupies our minds these days, climate change a still a crisis. Sustainability is a necessity, not an aspiration. It bears repeating in 2020, when our attention has shifted to the COVID-19 pandemic and the suffering it has caused.

The global recession, the worst pandemic in a century, and social justice protests have sucked almost all the oxygen out of the room. Unfortunately, that has done little for the carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere. Corporations, councils, and families have been trapped in what feels like survival mode for months. As we gradually emerge, it’s critical to remember the long-simmering environmental problems that still must be addressed.

There is clearly a will to do the right thing. About 230 councils have declared climate emergencies. And nearly two-thirds of councils in England have the goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2030, according to the Local Government Association. At Infosys, we also have a goal of becoming carbon neutral; per capita scope 1 and 2 greenhouse gas emissions dropped by 70% between 2008 and 2020.

Still, willpower isn’t nearly enough. The previous generations of technology got us into this position, where global heat records fall with alarming regularity. Thankfully, the newer generations of technology continue to offer solutions to make sustainability more than just a goal.

At Infosys, we realize there isn’t a technology solution to all the world’s problems. However, our first response is often to examine how innovation can help, often by experimenting on ourselves.

The foundation for most solutions is data; it’s impossible to solve a problem if you don’t understand it. We turned 149 buildings worldwide into a vast sustainability lab network. Combined, they have 18,000 sensors and 9,000 energy meters that help monitor the environment of 170,000 workers. Or at least they did before the pandemic moved most of the workforce to their homes.

The data collected allowed us to create energy-saving algorithms that run the air-conditioning and ventilation systems and generate real-time data and alerts. In many cases, these systems — using artificial intelligence — essentially run on autopilot. The results: Infosys cut its monthly per-capita electricity consumption in half in just a decade. That decrease, combined with 30 megawatts of new solar capacity, has pushed us to more than 44% renewable power at our campuses in India — an interim step toward our commitment to 100% renewable energy.

At the same time, the focus on improving the air-conditioning systems led us to adopt radiant cooling for about 5 million square feet of buildings in India. That has turned out to be 30% more efficient and will allow workers to breathe easier in this new environment. Most HVAC systems recirculate 85% of the air. Radiant cooling uses all fresh air; the pandemic has made office building air flow an important consideration rather than a wonky detail few people care about.

Other smart building systems provide granular details about water usage — one of our most important environmental priorities — so operations can be continuously optimised and leaks can be identified quickly. With the help of smart metering, Infosys recycled water equivalent to about 95% of our fresh water usage in the 2019-20 fiscal year. Also, freshwater usage per capita was reduced by nearly 9.5%, compared to our goal of 2%.

Let’s not forget about robots for solar panel cleaning or automated sewage sludge management, a collaboration with Leibniz University in Germany. These efforts have led to the creation of 25 million square feet of green building certified space.

These solutions don’t remain inside our campuses. Infosys experiments internally, takes risks, and then brings the winners to the public — air quality management applications, energy monitoring and reduction tools, and water demand prediction software. That led us to create a new sustainable business service line headed by Infosys Consulting veteran Jonquil Hackenberg.

The large-scale technology solutions are often distant from our lives or so futuristic that they don’t seem real. But many of these technologies will, or have already, reached the broader public. Much like the trajectory in the automobile industry, the innovations are expensive but then rapidly move down the chain. It’s easy to forget that power steering, air conditioning, and anti-lock brakes were once luxury items available to few car owners. Now, smart home systems are providing automation features previously seen only in large buildings. Smart meters provide some homeowners with electricity usage data in 15-minute increments.

Innovation isn’t the solution, but it is a critical part of any solution. Technology has pushed us toward the wrong tipping point. Now there is hope it can help point us in a different direction.

 

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