As the color green has become synonymous with environmental awareness, the sustainability practices of corporations have come under scrutiny from the media, the general public and even employees. While perhaps not immediate targets, like more industrial businesses, cable operators are not immune.

"Cable companies sending electronic signals got away with no one looking at their impact on the planet. They weren’t ‘in your face’ kinds of polluters. Now people are saying they consume a tremendous amount of electricity and have fleet vehicles," says Paul Shmotolokha, president of Coppervale Enterprises. "It’s a tide of public and consumer pressure, and general attitudinal shift that has cable companies looking at this issue."

Here’s the good news: Going green doesn’t have to cost a lot of green. "It can be an attractive improvement in the environment, but also to the bottom line," comments SCTE President Mark Dzuban, whose group earlier this year launched the Smart Energy Management Initiative (SEMI) with an eye to stepping up research of and collaboration on environmental strategies. ( Editor’s note: for more from Mark Dzuban, go to page 5.)

Measuring And Reducing

A company’s carbon footprint is a combination of direct usage ( i.e., the burning of gas and oil) and indirect usage. For example, consuming electricity contributes to whatever carbon is created by those producing the electricity.

A carbon-impact study of a large MSO by Coppervale Enterprises shows facilities and the outside plant contributing 62 percent of the operator’s overall emissions in comparison to fleet vehicles, which accounted for only 15 percent. To illustrate further, a large cable company might operate in excess of 250,000 power supplies and spend more than $300 million per year on power, Shmotolokha says. Improving the efficiency of the former number only stands to bring down the latter.

Cox Enterprises, the parent company of Cox Communications, within the last few years publicly stated goals for reducing carbon footprint. But the company’s environmental efforts stem back even further. "In the mid-1990s, we would go out to our operations and change out light bulbs and air conditioning units to more efficient ones. We did that to save money as well as to be environmentally friendly," says Mike Mannheimer, Cox’s VP/supply chain services and its chief procurement officer.

From approximately 2000 to 2006, Cox reduced its carbon footprint by 10 percent. In 2007, the company, under the direction of CEO Jim Kennedy, launched "Cox Conserves" to "make a difference" and to reduce the footprint another 20 percent by 2017. "It is basically a multifaceted program that aims to get our employees, their families and our communities involved," Mannheimer explains.

While Cox has been at the head of the pack, other MSOs like Time Warner Cable and Comcast also have accelerated their conservation efforts. "All are dedicated to taking action and getting it into the budgeting cycle to start embodying the notion of saving energy," SCTE"s Dzuban says.

By first reaching for low-hanging green fruit like Cox did, companies will bring down costs, but they also will make the migration path to renewable energy easier. "If (in your house) you lower your need from 20kw to 15kw, then you can use a lot fewer solar panels to cover your electricity usage," Coppervale’s Shmotolokha points out.

Even encouraging employees to do things like turn off lights and computers when they are not in use can make a difference. According to Shmotolokha, "The EPA estimates that, with a good behavioral change program, you can reduce two to three percent of energy usage."

For its part, Comcast — which leases or owns approximately 3,000 buildings, including three big data centers (in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Colorado) — had "rigorous" energy studies done of some of these properties. "We did a scrub of ‘large-draw’ buildings, ones that draw lots of power and (made) a series of recommendations,” says Sam Chernak, Comcast’s senior vice president/network architecture. “They had to do with heating and cooling, ventilation and insulation, and a lot of nuts-and-bolts infrastructure things.”

Comcast also implemented a pilot work-at-home program for customer-care employees; 1,000 of the company’s 20,000 reps have been participating in the ongoing trial.

"We are trying to glean what the collateral benefits are in terms of reducing the positions we maintain in the center, when people don’t drive to work," Chernak adds, noting that the operator also is pushing programs to reduce paper usage for consumer bills, proxy statements and paychecks.

Other ideas for plucking low-hanging fruit include sectorizing lighting and adding a second door to separate where real occupancy is compared to the outside. "With appropriate adjustments, you can save a lot of energy," Dzuban says.

Alternatives

Once these types of adjustments have been made, companies are in a better position to consider renewable energy systems.

"Solar is, in my opinion, the most cost-effective today, and the prices keep coming down. Panels are getting cheaper and cheaper, and they are pretty easy to install if you’ve got space. They take up a lot of space," Mannheimer says.

Cox Enterprises has completed solar installations in Arizona, California, Georgia, New Jersey and Oregon, going "where the money is," Mannheimer explains, saying, "There are federal incentives available and a number of states have various programs. We go wherever the most attractive incentives exist for us."

SCTE Goes Solar

This summer, SCTE had a 12,000-watt photovoltaic system installed at its headquarters in Pennsylvania. According to a case study by Alpha Technologies, SCTE used what is called a “Power Purchase Agreement” for the installation. The system is owned by a third party, and SCTE will pay a fixed “per kW hour” charge with the option to purchase the system when the contract expires in 2017.

The solar panel panels produce power when the sun is shining, and the organization sells it back to the utility for a credit. "The purpose is to put power onto the grid from the site," says Drew Zogby, president and COO at Alpha Technologies.

Once a company owns the installation outright, "most" can recover 50 percent of the initial investment within the first year, based on subsidies and tax benefits, Zogby says, "plus they get an extra production incentive from the local utility." A company might receive $0.20 per kWh for what it produces via solar, but it only will pay $0.10 per kWh for the power it buys.

Improvements in fuel-cell technology are making it more viable as a source of renewable energy. Cox has installed a 400 kW system at KTVU-TV in San Francisco, which the company says powers 69 percent of the building. Unlike hydrogen fuel cells, Bloom Energy’s system is based on solid oxide technology; and it uses low-cost, sand-like materials instead of platinum or corrosive acids.

"Bloom can produce twice the electricity and half the carbon for the same amount of fuel (as legacy technologies)," comments Stu Aaron, VP/marketing and product management.

Again, ROI depends on incentives. In California, for example, a company can generate electricity at between $0.08 and $0.10 per kWh, which translates to a three-to-five-year payback after federal and state programs are taken into account, Aaron says.

Alternate Alternatives

Fuel cells also can be used as battery back-up in the outside plant. "(They) can easily be filled. There is no issue with lead, and duration is very long," SCTE’s Dzuban says.

Infrastructure solutions provider CommScope markets a cabinet containing two 8kW fuel-cell modules. According to Mark Alrutz, CommScope’s director of worldwide technical sales and service, “Any time that a company needs sensitive electronics in the outside plant, it can use our cabinets."

In a backup situation where it would only be turned on 10 or 20 hours per year, the system has an unlimited shelf life because it uses “dry-dry technology.” It doesn’t need to have hydrogen cycled through it to keep up hydration.

"If you don’t have the power go off for two years, and the unit just sits there, you can flip it on and it will work," Alrutz says.

Monta Monaco Hernon is a frequent contributor to Communications Technology. Contact her at mcmhern@yahoo.com.

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