IISD/ICF study zero-carbon strategy for Canadian research institutions

The International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) and ICF International are embarking on a study in January that aims to quantify carbon emissions at three Canadian research institutions in an effort to develop a business case for moving IT operations to zero-carbon facilities.

A final report on the CANARIE-funded study, which includes participation by the University of Alberta, the University of Ottawa and Dalhousie University, is scheduled for release by the summer of 2010.

The study partners specifically with three universities, but the output “could potentially be used by any research organization in Canada to asses whether the business case fits their operational model or not,” said Tony Vetter, project manager for Global Connectivity at Ottawa-based IISD.

The study will focus on three main areas: determining how much carbon emission is released from IT facilities at Canadian research institutions, developing a business case for relocating IT operations to zero-carbon facilities and examining policy and jurisdictional barriers to such relocation projects.

While studies analyzing the carbon footprint of IT facilities at research institutions based in the U.S. and the U.K. are readily available, concrete figures for Canadian organizations are nearly non-existent, Vetter explained.  

“This will be a ground-breaking study in the sense that it will be establishing some concrete figures regarding what the order of magnitude is for these institutions in terms of their carbon footprint resulting from IT infrastructure,” he said.

IT infrastructure accounts for a large portion of equivalent CO2 emissions at research universities, according to IISD, which highlights an estimate from the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology indicating higher education is responsible for five to 10 per cent of carbon emissions in the U.S.

“IISD’s study will look at whether the estimates are similar in Canada,” states IISD.

The business case will target projects that relocate a portion of all of those IT facilities to a zero-carbon site powered by a renewable source of energy, such as a waterfall or a windmill, which would then leverage CANARIE’s high-speed network to connect the off-site location to the research institution, explained Vetter.

CANARIE’s ultra high-speed network could potentially connect populated centres with remote locations, which would tackle the traditional difficulty associated with relocation projects that rely on renewable energy sources located in areas that are difficult to access, he pointed out.

“You’re typically looking at developing a power generation facility that needs to transmit that energy over hundreds or thousands of kilometres … the transmission of that energy will suffer losses in the process,” he said.

The policy analysis will look at climate change regulatory frameworks and strategies research institutions can take to mitigate risks and capitalize on some of the opportunities related to the carbon market, explained Vetter.

Initiatives involving information and communication technologies as a vehicle for realizing carbon emission reductions haven’t traditionally been recognized for carbon credits, he pointed out. “We’re hoping that through studies like this, we can demonstrate the potential for them to be recognized,” said Vetter.

The study will also look at legal barriers, such as those related to the location of data sets, he pointed out.

Climate legislation is rapidly emerging across North America and with these new rules will come operational and financial cost impacts and opportunities, said Katie Sullivan, senior associate at ICF International in Toronto.  

“Under the CANARIE project, IISD/ICF will review these climate policy/market designs, and help to navigate the risks and opportunities related to such developments, with a particular focus on IT operations and growth strategies at various Canadian research institutes,” said Sullivan.

Federal climate legislation hasn’t yet appeared in the United States or Canada, but Sullivan expects to see “something hit the Senate floor by early 2010.” While Ottawa has “been very quiet” over the last six months, they will likely align Canada’s policy with that of the U.S., she said.

The only concrete greenhouse gas regulation that currently exists in Canada is in Alberta, she noted.

ICF will work with IISD to facilitate the emissions data collection process, which includes the carbon footprint component and the quantification of greenhouse gas emissions from the data centres, according to Sullivan.

ICF will also be involved in the carbon market policy analysis component, which will look at the different climate change policies that are emerging throughout North America, but focus primarily on those within Canada, she said.

“The beauty of the universities that we have on board is that they are in different jurisdictions in Canada with different energy profiles,” said Sullivan. They are also located in provinces with very different regulatory frameworks, she pointed out.

The IISD/ISF study is one of several research projects funded by CANARIE directed towards the greening of Canada’s cyber-infrastructure.

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