Sustainability and Technology

Google launches tool for measuring carbon footprint

Local city, business officials say it could ‘plant a seed’ for organizations looking to curb climate impact.

September 28, 2018
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Kris and Jason Spaulding installed solar panels atop Brewery Vivant in 2016. Kris Spaulding said it would be interesting to see how the Google data stacked up against Brewery Vivant’s own findings. Courtesy Brewery Vivant

Google launched a pilot project that, if rolled out worldwide, could help cities and businesses more quickly meet sustainability goals — for free.

The Environmental Insights Explorer beta tool launched Sept. 10. It was created in partnership with the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy, which has pledged to keep the Paris Agreement despite the Trump Administration’s withdrawal from the climate change mitigation pact in 2017.

The tool uses Google Maps and other data to show the building and transportation emissions of five cities: Buenos Aires, Argentina; Melbourne, Australia; Victoria, Canada; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and Mountain View, California, home of Google’s headquarters.

It also draws on Google’s solar power initiative, Project Sunroof, using artificial intelligence to determine the rooftop solar potential of all buildings in a given region.

Nicole Lombardo, a member of Google’s environmental insights team, recently told Fast Company magazine Google plans to roll out the Environmental Insights Explorer in every city for which data is available once the team has had a chance to refine and improve the data.

Alison Waske Sutter, sustainability manager for the city of Grand Rapids, said the city signed on with the three-year Zero Cities Project in December 2017 to determine the carbon footprint of all buildings within Grand Rapids and reduce emissions. But the project is using equations based on “estimated data that might be dated” and having newer data from Google would be “more advantageous” if it was verified as accurate.

The Environmental Insights Explorer in its current form uses data from 2017.

Sutter also said the tool could help cities save money on emissions inventories. Grand Rapids is using a $70,000 grant from the Wege Foundation to fund its participation in the Zero Cities Project, according to an earlier Business Journal report.

“Trying to calculate a carbon footprint is extremely resource intensive,” Sutter said. “If this works well, it could really help resource-confined municipal operations.”

She said the third element of the tool — rooftop solar potential — interested her the most, as it could help cities determine untapped potential and make more equitable decisions about green energy opportunities in their economic development plans.

Sutter also noted the tool would be a good starting point for cities or businesses that have no idea what their carbon footprint is and, yet, are trying to set percentage-based goals to reduce it.

Kris Spaulding, co-owner and sustainability director at Brewery Vivant, said her business already has a methodology in place for calculating its carbon footprint but doing so is a “big project and requires a lot of information,” and she would be interested to see how the Google data stacks up against hers if Grand Rapids is eventually added to the project.

She said the rooftop solar potential component could help businesses save time and money since those assessments currently have to be done by a person.

Spaulding said she thinks the tool could help businesses take the first step in implementing a sustainability plan.

“Sometimes, you just have to plant a seed, and they will take the next step to look into it,” she said. “Having a simple tool do that is pretty amazing.”

Maeve Burns, senior sustainability analyst at Steelcase, said her company already tracks energy consumption and emissions from its West Michigan facilities using primary data, but this tool could be a potential supplement.

“There are other smaller locations where we use estimations, and this tool may help to alleviate that work or give us more data to support the estimations,” she said.

“This ability to pull more granular data from the overarching city information would be valuable. We would also be very interested in learning what renewable opportunities might be possible through using the tool (e.g. rooftop solar).

“For Steelcase, accurate energy tracking is an essential component of goal setting and reporting progress against those goals; therefore, any new technology that helps support organizations with this work is promising.”

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