Meet the Change Makers: How Verizon is dialing in efficiency | OnEarth

Greening fleets, mining copper cables and tweaking data centers at Verizon

Verizon can trace its technological roots back to the 1880s, when Alexander Graham Bell’s invention first relayed voices between Manhattan and Boston. Now, as then, the New York-based company still connects old-fashioned phone calls. But these days, digital business services are emerging as big telco’s main focus, from tending corporations’ high-speed networks to building advanced mobile cell services that keep us connected everywhere.

As demand for these digital services grows, Verizon finds itself in a tight race for the top spot in the U.S. telecom market. With $107 billion in revenues last year, it trails only AT&T, which posted $113 billion in sales.

Verizon’s first chief sustainability officer, as well as vice president of supply chain, James “Jim” Gowen believes that focusing on green technology will offer Verizon a way to close the gap with its rival. The company’s efforts, Gowen points out, are already improving Verizon’s efficiency and reducing its environmental impact. In time, he says, they’ll open up new markets, too.

Verizon’s commitment to sustainability is still in its early stages. It was just two years ago that the company formally wove together a variety of ongoing eco efforts that were happening across its far-flung operations. Gowen, who is a long-time veteran of Verizon’s supply-chain operations, was promoted to his post in September 2009. Outside the office, he sits on the sustainability council at Penn State University’s school of business.

One of the biggest challenges to scaling up green efforts, Gowen admits, is Verizon’s enormous size. But that also means the impact of Verizon’s choices is proportionally large, he says.

OnEarth contributor Adam Aston recently spoke with Gowen to learn what lessons Verizon can offer other corporations greening their operations on a large scale.

What’s the scale of your global operations?

Verizon is bigger and broader than many folks realize. We have more than 190,000 employees globally, and have followed our customers overseas, so we’re doing business in more than 150 countries, with more than 90 million retail customers.

In terms of facilities, we have approximately 30,000, ranging from remote equipment sheds to very large data centers. To keep our cellular network humming, we operate approximately 40,000 cell towers.

Only a few dozen U.S. companies listed on the stock exchange, out of more than 7,000, have appointed chief sustainability officers. What led Verizon to take that step?

It was a long time in coming but was really formalized in 2009, when we surveyed green efforts across the company. Verizon was already doing a lot of work in sustainability, but our efforts were separate and often unaware of related work elsewhere in the company.

When we looked at our two big divisions — wireless and conventional wire-line services — it was amazing to me how much was going on. But it hadn’t been brought together yet. So the decision was made to create an office of sustainability, led by a new chief sustainability officer.

The next decision had to do with what the main focus of this role would be: more operational or more policy and marketing? And that affected where the new sustainability office would be based. Some companies opt for Washington, D.C., which implies more of a policy focus. We chose to emphasize operations, so the role was put into the supply chain area, under my watch, at our operations center in Basking Ridge, New Jersey.

Why now?

The pressure was coming from both outside and inside. From our corporate customers, the number of requests to document our sustainability practices as part of quotes for new business was growing steadily. Some of our partners are documenting their carbon footprints, for example, and need us to be able to estimate the impact of the services we provide to them.

Internal pressure was rising, too. There was a groundswell of employees eager to see change move faster. I was getting very frank calls, with folks telling me things like, “I work in Tampa and we don’t recycle.” That caught my attention right away. Green practices are becoming more and more important to attracting and keeping top people.

You mentioned that Verizon operates a huge fleet of vehicles. Is it a target for your green efforts?

The fleet is a major focus. On the road, we operate the third-largest private fleet in the United States, with more than 39,000 vans, trucks, and cars. Keeping them running requires 56 million gallons of fuel every year. Right now, about six percent of our fleet runs on alternative fuels. We’re aiming to boost that figure to 15 percent by 2015.

In 2010, for instance, Verizon added 1,600 alternative-energy vehicles, including specialized vehicles, such as our aerial trucks, which use a hydraulic arm to lift up a worker in a bucket and access overhead wires, as well as hybrid pickup trucks and sedans. As fuel supplies become more reliable, we’re boosting our use of biodiesel and ethanol as well.

It can be simple stuff, too. By discouraging idling by our fleet drivers, we estimate that we saved 1.7 million gallons of fuel in 2009 — roughly the same amount used by 2,800 average cars over a year.

We’re also working with other big fleet operators. In April 2011, Verizon was among five charter members of a new National Clean Fleet Program initiative by President Obama. Some of the other participants are our day-to-day competitors, but by working together, if we go to the auto industry to request greener features, its more likely those changes will happen.

How are you improving the environmental performance of your network and data centers?

Verizon is continuously upgrading our network of cables. The oldest parts of our network were built more than a century ago. There are many wires and switches that date back decades, all of which are being replaced with lighter, smaller, more energy-efficient digital systems. For example, in recent years, we’ve been replacing miles and miles of aging copper cables — some of the older ones are enormous, as thick as an arm — with fiber optics. Given the high value of copper lately, recycling this copper has been a significant source of revenue. It’s like mining our own cable network. These upgrades all deliver improvements in energy use.

Replacing conventional networks with fiber optics can deliver big savings. At a lab in Columbia, Md., Verizon is developing ways to use optical fiber in local area networks, to and from buildings on a campus or to homes in a neighborhood. To date, these have used conventional, older cable technology. Making a switch cuts the amount of power needed to send data between buildings by up to 75 percent and can deliver signals as far as 12 miles without the need to amplify them.

And within our data centers, we’re pursuing ways to lower energy use. We’ve set energy-efficiency standards for the gear we buy from suppliers of network equipment. These standards have saved some 90 million kWh of power consumption and avoided approximately 115 million pounds of CO2 emissions.

Speaking of greenhouse gas emissions, many companies have announced targets they’re working toward. Verizon hasn’t done that. How are you approaching this problem?

We are looking to lower emissions, but our focus has been on what we call an Environmentally Neutral Engineering Policy: for every kWh of demand we add to the network, we aim to remove one or more somewhere else. This has helped us cut emissions. We focus on the energy consumed by our network because electricity accounts for about 90 percent of Verizon’s overall carbon footprint. Of the remainder, about seven percent comes from fuelling our fleet, and most of the balance from operating our buildings.

Company-wide, the push to cut carbon really began in 2009. By the following year, we had lowered our CO2 emissions by a bit more than two percent. That reduction came despite double-digit growth in our network: the volume of data we moved grew by about 16 percent, to nearly 79 million terabytes. Measured this way, our “carbon intensity” efficiency improved substantially: we produced about 16 percent less CO2 for each unit of data we handled. In April, we announced our commitment to reduce our carbon intensity by another 15 percent and I’m happy to tell you that as of the third quarter we are on track.

Even as electronic gizmos become more efficient, they seem to be multiplying at our homes and offices. What is Verizon doing about its customers’ environmental impact?

In April of last year, Verizon launched two new energy efficient set-top boxes, which reduced energy usage by about a third for our customers. Then in January, we were certified as an Energy Star Service Provider for set-top boxes, and we’re now installing four different Energy Star models.

Beyond energy we realize that there are many other “green” opportunities with consumer devices. We’re working to reduce packaging and suspected toxins in our electronics. Working with cell phone makers, we’ve rolled out handsets with greener features.

Motorola’s Citrus, for example, is free of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and brominated flame retardants (BFRs), chemicals that are believed to pose health hazards. The handset is manufactured from 25 percent post-consumer recycled plastic. Likewise, the packaging is four-fifths recycled, and the user manual is made from 100 percent recycled paper. And as a whole, the cell phone is certified CarbonFree through a deal with

Verizon has played a big role in the Internet revolution, a shift that has on one hand lowered paper use and travel, but on the other has spurred the spread of power-hungry electronics. What’s that next big transformation that will affect energy trends?

The smart grid and electric vehicles are just beginning to emerge. We expect that in the long term they will significantly cut the use of fuel for transportation. Verizon is positioned to play a big role in this shift, by developing information technology, security, and communications services to help the utility sector speed the rollout of the smart grid.

For example, our Internet Protocol and wireless networks are a good match for the sorts of billing, tracking, and management challenges that utilities and car owners will face in re-charging electric vehicles at home and while traveling. By the end of last year, we had contracted with more then 20 utilities to wirelessly connect more than one million meters back to the smart grid.

Sidebar: Truth squad

NRDC’s Samir Succar on the prospects for telcos to pave the way for a smarter grid 

In the realm of sustainability, it’s common for companies to point to future green goals, whether reduced emissions or planned product lines. This can make assessing their eco-progress more of an art than a science.

Consider Verizon’s big green bet on the smart grid, the next frontier in telcos’ efforts to shape the energy impact of their customers. The need to wirelessly link digital power meters and smart appliances to the grid promises huge energy savings. Verizon, like its peers, is tackling this opportunity, but it stands out with ambitious goals to operate smart grid applications on behalf of utilities, relying on its deep expertise with data centers and complex wireless transactions.

“Digitizing the grid holds enormous opportunity,” says NRDC’s smart grid expert Samir Succar, “but it remains to be seen if Verizon will be just a neutral party relaying information to the utility, or if it can really play a role shaping customers’ habits.”

To deliver savings, Verizon and other network operators will have to alter their emphasis on performance over efficiency. Consider a recent NRDC study that revealed that by not enabling energy-savings settings on set-top boxes, cable, satellite, and data providers were costing consumers $2 billion per year in wasted energy. Verizon and the others have responded to those criticisms by rolling out lower-energy devices. 

It’s tough to gauge who’s winning in the telcos’ race for sustainability. Both AT&T and Verizon appointed chief sustainability officers in 2009, but the third-place carrier, Sprint Nextel, beat its peers in a recent green ranking of U.S. companies. Sprint was first out of the gate with four environmentally responsible cell phones. It has also committed to a 90 percent rate of collecting discarded phones, taken steps to lower its junk mail output, and is targeting cuts of 15 percent to its overall emissions by 2017. 

–Adam Aston

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