Computers are joining the human race’s fight to save the planet.

Resident Fellow in Industrial Ecology Reid Lifset SOM ’89 is the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Industrial Ecology, which recently published a special issue on information and communication technology. Lifset’s research focuses on the applications of industrial ecology to new problems and the evolution of strategies that aim to shift the environmental costs of goods. He is a member of the governing council of the International Society for Industrial Ecology and serves on the Science Advisory Board of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The News spoke with Lifset at his office at 380 Edwards Street on Science Hill on Monday.

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Q How would you define the field of information and communication technology?

A Information and communication technology is an intentionally broad term that includes both hardware and software and content. So it covers electronics, it covers the internet, telephones [and] software.

Q How is information and communication technology used in the world?

A One interesting example in the issue is called non-intrusive load management. So you have a bunch of appliances in the household and you want to know which ones are sucking up the most electricity so you can know where to focus your efforts on having a more energy efficient house. Instead of going in and attaching monitoring devices to all the appliances in the house, what you can do with the technology that is discussed in this article is monitor the combination of voltage and current coming into the house in a way that reveals the energy usage for the various appliances.

Q Is this technology only used in electricity conservation?

A Another [application] presented in this special issue is smart irrigation controllers. So you’re in the southwest US — let’s say Arizona — and you want to be very careful about your use of water because it’s very expensive and it’s very scarce. Some technologies have emerged to use microchips to decide how to parcel out the water so you [can use the] water when crops or lawns will make best use of it. It’s all about not wasting water. You [also] don’t want to spend too much money — that’s one constraint. You want to make sure you get significant gains in terms of water savings. And you don’t want to generate a lot of greenhouse gas. So you have options for design — make this part bigger or that part smaller — but intellectually you have a design space that is constrained. This is a model that can help figure out what the constraints are and the tradeoffs within those constraints.

Q Are these applications difficult to implement?

A Let’s take the smart irrigation controller. The specific innovation here is not smart irrigation controllers in general but how to be really smart about how you design them and where you choose to use them. That kind of model is now available, so someone could start using the insights generated from that analysis immediately. I think one of the advantages of the non-intrusive load management is that it’s not difficult to implement. Part of the idea is that instead of having to fuss in somebody’s house, you have these devices and you attach them to an electrical cable coming into the house and you’re on your way. With the smart irrigation controllers, it’s not about the device that’s being invented. It’s about being savvy about where and when to use it.

Q Are there any obstacles to these environmentally friendly technologies?

A All of them will face obstacles in terms of having the competitive costs of gaining consumer acceptance — all the things that any type of product faces.

Q How will smart irrigation technologies lower the associated costs of water use and carbon emissions?

A Water will be used more precisely. When you move water, when you pump it, it takes energy. Think about how this water comes out of your tap. Somebody somewhere is providing energy to move it through the water system so the less water you use, the less energy you use to pump it.

Q What do you think we should do to combat climate change?

A We should put a price on carbon – like a carbon tax.