Climate impact might not be the first thing on your mind when jumping on a search engine (unless you're searching "climate impact"). But much is going on behind the scenes of these ethereal data dealers of search. Yahoo! has recruited its secret weapon in the climate battle, Christina Page, from the arsenal of the Rocky Mountain Institute, Amory Lovins' brainy and prestigious "think-and-do tank," (also a TH guest poster).
As Yahoo!'s director of climate and energy strategy, Page has been charged with bringing the company to carbon neutrality (which it accomplished in 2007), and with developing outlets like its green autos page, 18Seconds.org (the CFL initiative of Inconvenient Truth producer Lawrence Bender), and Freecycle (a Yahoo! group). Yahoo! is also trying to harness the brains and fingers of its 500 million users to create green iconography, do-gooder advertising, and a world of green Web users. ::TreeHugger Radio
Also check out our interview with Yahoo! co-founder David Filo.
Special thanks goes to CraigMichaels, the organizer of the Sustainable Operations Summit, for arranging this interview.
(Full text after the jump)TreeHugger: Maybe the biggest environmental wager Yahoo! has put on the table is carbon neutrality. Where does this stand right now?
Chris Page: Yahoo! committed to being carbon neutral by the end of 2007. We achieved our goal last year through the purchase of carbon offsets. What we're doing this year is continuing that initiative. We're committed to being an environmentally responsible company, so we're going to continue measuring our carbon footprint, look for offsets against the emissions that we have created, and continuously look for ways to mitigate our footprint moving forward, including through efficiency in our data centers and efficiency in our office buildings, and look for ways to help our employees get to work more efficiently as well.
TH: Carbon offsets are one of the major tools in your belt as you strive towards this goal. A moment ago you referred to "high-quality" carbon offsets. What's the process for vetting a high-quality carbon offset?
CP: That's a really good question. Last year, with our consultants, we reviewed about 100 projects. From the outset we wanted projects that were verified by a third party— something that met a very high standard of additionality (because they were verified by a third party that said, 'yes, indeed, this meets the standard of additionality'), in areas where Yahoo! has presence, and in projects that are significant and meaningful to Yahoo! and Yahoo!'s impacts. That's one of the reasons why we focused on India and Brazil, where we have presence, and why we focused on alternative energy projects like wind and small scale run-of-river hydro.
The projects that we've invested in are verified emission reduction projects, so they've been reviewed through the same protocol that they're using for credits that are traded through the Kyoto Protocol. They're reviewed by folks who have been thinking a lot about what additionality is and have looked at a lot of projects. So we're confident that they meet a high standard for carbon offsets.
TH: Can you highlight one of the projects that Yahoo! has invested in?
CP: On my first day on the job, which was June, 2007, I was on a plane down to Brazil to check out some of these projects on the ground. That was also something that was important to us: taking a look at these projects to see whether they are what they say they are. So, I took the opportunity to go to western Brazil. I took a plane and then a bus and another plane and then a truck for several hours to go take a look at a variety of projects that we were considering. We finally settled on two of the four small-scale hydro projects.
That was a great experience because we got to meet the son and dad team who builds a couple of these projects. That's what they do; they go around and build these small-scale three to four megawatt units around western Brazil, which has an increasing need for electricity. A lot of that need is being met by diesel thermal, so very polluting fossil fuel-based projects. Neck and neck with those projects are these small-scale run-of-river hydro projects. Guys like this father-son team are doing their best to build and promote, and get both electricity revenue but also carbon offset revenue.
TH: Why the decision to be so involved in these individual projects versus just purchasing carbon offsets on the market or from a private company like Native Energy or Terrapass?
CP: I think, especially at this stage in the voluntary carbon market, we just want to make really sure. We just want to put a human face on what we were doing. We wanted it to be relevant to Yahoo! employees and Yahoo! users. We wanted to put a foundation of credibility under what our goals were around carbon neutrality.
I think, as the offset market matures, there are opportunities to streamline things a little bit. I think that level of personalization, especially with Yahoo! being the kind of company that it is, is going to be important to us on an ongoing basis.
TH: What were you doing before Yahoo! brought you on board?
CP: I was working for the Rocky Mountain Institute in Snowmass, Colorado. I did that for seven years and I worked in a variety of their consulting practices. Rocky Mountain Institute is a research and consulting think-and-do tank that focuses on ways to foster the sustainability of resources to make the world more secure and life-sustaining.
In seven years I don't think I even tackled all there was to learn there, but I got to spend some time working with major corporations on their sustainability strategy. I did a lot of work on energy efficiency and greenhouse gas management for utilities. I did some work with communities and cities as well. My last gig there was a project with the National Renewable Energy Lab looking for ways to make cellulose ethanol more efficient. Right before that we got to work with the Port of Seattle and Tacoma, so that was a gas.
TH: What does Amory Lovins think of what Yahoo! is doing right now?
CP: Amory is a big fan of anything that gets people to think differently about green and business. I think he's very excited about Yahoo!'s work. He's been very involved in the question of data-center efficiency for a while. The Rocky Mountain Institute did a workshop back in 2002 that highlighted energy efficient design solutions. A lot of that stuff is mainstream. A lot of their support of things like airside economizers, which make data centers more efficient, is a lot more generally accepted than it was even five years ago.
So Amory is a big proponent of paying more attention to your electrical consumption and your carbon, and figuring out cost-effective ways to manage it.
TH: Do you feel like there's competition among, say, Google, to be greener internally and to offer their users more robust green products?
CP: Just speaking for Yahoo!, we've got 500 million users globally. What I see our carbon neutrality goal and our efforts towards greater energy efficiency as doing is providing a foundation of credibility. The fact that we're committed as an environmentally responsible organization internally is a foundation of credibility that we use to reach out to our 500 million users.
In terms of products that we offer to consumer, we've had a couple of fantastic collaborations. There's a project called 18seconds.org which encourages people to purchase compact fluorescent light bulbs (because it takes you 18 seconds to change one). That provided a map of sales of CFLs all around the country so you could see how your community was doing versus other communities.
Yahoo! Autos has a great calculator that can show you a comparison of the fuel efficiency of different types of automobile, including hybrid vehicles. It's been wildly popular. Yahoo! Green provides green tips on a daily basis for folks and a carbon footprint calculator. So, I think, our biggest asset really is our 500 million users, and figuring out ways that we can influence them and provide them with information to change their behavior. This is really one of the most powerful things Yahoo! can do.
For Earth Day this year, one of the things that Yahoo! decided to highlight was Freecycle. Freecycle is this tremendously growing movement of four million people in over 4,000 groups in 85 countries. About 25,000 members sign up each week. And basically it's a network that allows people, through Yahoo! Groups, to find people who have something they want and exchange it for free. It started around this notion that everybody's got something that somebody else wants, so why not trade it?
A gentleman named Deron Beal started the whole group and said, 'okay, let's figure out a way to bring these people together.' Of the three Rs (reduce, reuse, and recycle), reuse is something that's overlooked a lot. When you're keeping something out of a landfill and preventing something from having to be manufactured in the first place, that has a tremendous affect on carbon input. It's less methane coming out of landfills because it doesn't go into the landfill. It's less greenhouse gas emitted from manufacturing the product in the first place.
What we did for Earth Day was imbed gifts—we hid gifts in different places in different Yahoo! Groups that were Freecycle groups so people would find them. They were all eco-friendly gifts like gourmet eco-cooking classes or a year's supply of environmentally friendly toilet paper.
What we were trying to do is delight a community of Yahoo! members who are already eco-inclined. They're already interested in doing more with less, so looking for ways that we could work with them, encourage more people to sign up and foster a sense of delight within the Freecycle community, was a natural fit for Yahoo!.
TH: Most people who participate in Freecycle may not be aware that it's facilitated by Yahoo!. How active does Yahoo! want to be in what Freecycle does?
CP: One of the things that we did as well, we had an employee Freecycle event on several of our Yahoo! campuses. For Earth Week that was something we chose to focus on. It was a good opportunity to build awareness among Yahoo! employees.
For the most part, I think, Yahoo! is most effective when people are using it as a social tool: they're using it as a source of information, ways to get advice, be inspired by other people, connect to a community, look at other people's Flickr pictures. There are lots of opportunities to imbed green in that. And I think we've had great success doing so.
TH: When people use the web, if they're thinking about energy consumption, they're probably thinking about what their computer is using. Over at Yahoo!, you use a relatively large amount of power so this is part of your carbon footprint. Is that where most of Yahoo!'s carbon footprint comes from, the energy consumption?
CP: Yes. Most of it is about electricity. We are an Internet based company; we don't have a really elaborate supply chain. We don't have lots of trucks going from place to place. We're really a lot about the electrons. That's a great opportunity if you can figure out a way to deliver something more efficiently to people. We connect people in the Freecycle network, people are able to access information online that they used to have to rely very heavily on paper for. There are lots of opportunities by being an Internet company to behave in a sustainable manner.
Having said that, on an ongoing basis, electricity is something we're paying very close attention to. That is our major leverage point. That's one of the reasons why in our carbon offset purchases we focused on wind energy in India and small scale run-of-river in Brazil. We're really interested in encouraging the acceleration of alternative energy in developing countries, where they're at a crossroads, as well as looking for ways to influence our footprint domestically.
TH: When it comes to energy efficiency within Yahoo!, technologically, what's being done to minimize that?
CP: We're very committed to making our data centers as efficient as possible. We've got engineers who spend a lot of time thinking about this. We've got a facility up in Quincy, Washington, that's state of the art. It uses a lot of passive cooling: one of the major consumptions of electricity for data centers is keeping your servers cool. Normally you do that through relatively inefficient air conditioning systems.
Because of the environment up in Washington state, about three quarters of the year we use ambient air temperature from outside for free cooling, which is tremendously useful in terms of reducing our utility bill and reducing our electricity consumption.
Throughout our different facilities and data centers we're always looking for ways to improve our efficiency. That's something that Yahoo! does very well and is always striving to do better.
Another technological tool on a smaller scale is at our main campus in Sunnyvale where we have something called the Green Screen, which is a real-time electricity monitoring device which allows us to visually see which building is consuming which level of electricity over time. It's a very useful tool for my facilities guys who spend a lot of time thinking about the electrical load of different buildings. But it's also a great educational tool.
We've got this great big touch screen in our cafeteria, which features what's happening with electricity during the day. You can compare one building against another. You can see how we're doing over the course of a month or a week or a day.
Just last week, as a matter of fact, we had what's called a demand-response event. The temperature went over 100 degrees in Silicon Valley, and at the request of our energy utility we turned off some lights and turned down the air conditioning to prevent drastic peaks to the electrical load that can lead to brown outs and definitely contribute a lot of carbon to the atmosphere.
Having our employees see the increase in electricity use and then see it tail down quite a bit when we took those efficiency measures, is a great educational opportunity and helps to build awareness.
TH: Since cooling off servers is one of the big energy draws, would a company like Yahoo! ever locate a server base geographically to take advantage of cooler temperatures?
CP: That's something that we think about a lot. Part of the reason for the site in Quincy, Washington is that the thermal regime up there is really favorable. We have to locate data centers where we need capacity. In some cases we don't necessarily have that option. But in places that are hotter where we've got a bigger thermal load, we look for other design innovations to help with our efficiency as well.
TH: What is all this doing for the bottom line?
CP: Any time you're disciplined about what you measure and what you're consuming, it's a good thing. It helps to keep track of where things are going as a company. The discipline of having a carbon metric, the discipline of measuring our footprint, buying offsets, assigning a cost to offsets and saying, 'what are we going to do collectively as a company to address this,' is a really powerful thing to do.
Amory will say that any time you reduce your waste, that should drop straight to the bottom line. I really believe that. As a company, part of what we're doing with measuring our carbon footprint is looking for where are the places to reduce this. Where is the waste? Where can we save money and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions?
In terms of the bottom line it's an important direction to be looking. I'd also say that since John McCain locked in the nomination for the Republican Party, we're looking at having a greenhouse gas regulation in this country within the next couple of years. Being proactive in looking at greenhouse gas emissions and looking at where your company fits into the spectrum is a really good thing to do.