Business intelligence for managing energy output emerges alongside climate concerns

Microsoft, SAS and others are applying business intelligence tools to the problem of energy emissions, but they may need regulatory mandates to catch on.

With its release of a new dashboard to help companies monitor carbon emissions, Microsoft last week joined a growing

list of IT vendors attempting to apply the principles of business intelligence (BI) to environmental sustainability.

The Environmental Sustainability Dashboard, an add-on to Dynamics AX, Microsoft's ERP suite for small and midsized businesses, lets companies monitor both direct carbon emissions – like the amount of coal burned at a company factory – and indirect energy output, including electricity use. Companies that adjust energy consumption behavior can also set up KPIs to track their progress.

"The dashboard is built on the premise, 'If you can measure it, you can manage it,' " said Jennifer Pollard, senior product manager for Microsoft Dynamics.

Microsoft is hardly alone. Sensing an opportunity, a number of BI vendors, including The SAS Institute and Actuate, have released or are exploring products to help companies manage and reduce their carbon footprints through enhanced data analytics and visualization. They are hoping to capitalize on the growing interest in environmental sustainability spurred by public concern over global warming.

Last April, for example, SAS released SAS for Sustainability Management, a software suite based on its enterprise intelligence platform, to help companies develop strategies to lower their carbon footprint. Likewise, Actuate for Sustainability Management, released in September, is made up of dashboards, scorecards and performance maps to track energy output.

"These are not naïve companies," said Claudia Imhoff, president of BI and data warehousing consultancy Intelligent Solutions. "There's a reason why they see a need for these things, and I think it has a lot to do with the regulations that are pending and the few that have already passed."

Imhoff refers to potential regulations limiting commercial carbon emissions that could foster demand for technology to track those emissions. President Obama, for example, reportedly supports a so-called cap-and-trade framework that would let companies sell unused carbon output. If such a framework were implemented, it would almost certainly require companies to more strictly monitor and report on their emissions.

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Tracking and analyzing carbon emissions "requires business intelligence," Imhoff said. "It requires an analysis or a report. You can't just go to the government and say, 'Yeah, I did it.' You're going to have to prove it to them, and by proof I mean your data has to talk and it has to demonstrate that you have reduced your emissions or whatever it is the regulation is requiring."

Some companies already track or plan to begin tracking their carbon emissions -- regulations or not -- partly out of a desire to be seen as good corporate citizens but also to find ways to improve efficiencies and save on energy costs.

Sole Technology, a manufacturer of what it calls action sportswear, has set a goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2020. The company has been working with Microsoft on the development of the new environmental dashboard, which is supported by Microsoft SQL Reporting Services, and plans to deploy it later this year.

"Doing the right thing in regards to the environment is part of our core values, and we believe it is important to invest in these available resources," said George Bock, vice president of IT at Sole, in an email interview. "Any cost savings gained is an added bonus."

But Imhoff believes that more than environmental goodwill will be necessary to get most companies to start taking their carbon emissions seriously.

"Until there is a regulatory or financial incentive [to track and reduce carbon emissions and other energy output]," she said, "I don't know if it's going to get a lot of traction."

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