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The greenest computer company under the Sun

Sun Microsystems lives up to its name and puts energy efficiency at its core. Why? Computers draw 4-5 percent of total world power, its eco-boss tells Fortune's David Kirkpatrick.

By David Kirkpatrick, Fortune senior editor

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- Sun's Dave Douglas is more than just a green evangelist. As vice president for eco-responsibility at Sun Microsystems, he doesn't just push predictable virtues like recycling (though he says Sun recycles an amazing 99.7 percent of returned product materials in California).

Douglas, who looks a bit like Sun Chairman Scott McNealy, has surprisingly deep involvement in issues involving product planning, management and employee policies, building design, government relations and of course, marketing. He spends his time on everything from helping redesign data centers to figuring out where Sun employees should work.

Though all the big computer-makers are getting the green religion (Dell (Charts) CEO Michael Dell in particular has had an environmental epiphany) a conversation with Douglas convinced me that Sun (Charts) is ahead of its peers in the scope and seriousness of its multi-tentacled environmental efforts.

For him, this is just good business. "Energy responsibility is about to become a society-wide business imperative," he says. "All my projects have measurable business benefit. You might say the 'eco' in my title is for economics as well as ecology."

"We're not only part of the solution but also part of the problem," he confesses. What he means is that computers are egregious energy hogs. Data centers alone, Sun calculates, account for 2-3 percent of total world energy use, with all IT making up more like 4-5 percent. At big companies, 20 percent of total energy costs can typically be accounted for by information technology.

The company's products are being designed with this in mind. Douglas proudly notes that Sun's UltraSPARC server processors are the most energy-efficient on the market. In California, companies can now get rebates from utility Pacific Gas & Electric (Charts) merely by switching from other servers to Sun's.

Energy considerations also help explain what many consider a mystery - why Sun spent $4.1 billion to purchase tape-archiving company Storage Technology 2 years ago. Tape-based digital systems use far less energy than disk-based ones.

Douglas cites a study by Gartner that found that by 2015 the energy cost of running computers will be greater than the cost of acquiring them. He says it's already happened in high-cost cities like Tokyo, "and in New York it's probably four or five years away."

The company is clearly also trying to make its own corporate behavior less of the problem. Last year it promised to reduce its corporate greenhouse gas emissions 20 percent from 2002 levels by 2012. So Sun now encourages employees to work from home, to share offices and to work at satellite locations.

Now 55 percent of employees have given up their offices (including the New York-based PR person who sat in on our interview). The company calculates that 30,000 tons in carbon emissions are thus eliminated by reduced commuting as well as office heating and cooling needs. In 2006, the company saved, it figures, $67.8 million in real estate and related operating costs as a result of not having to maintain those offices.

At Sun it's considered part of the eco-boss's role even to help make the office a more efficient place in the moments when employees are there. "If you're just calling people and e-mailing you'll do that from home or from a Starbucks," Douglas says. "So what is the office for? How do you encourage people to be part of brainstorming on software development projects? What's the role of the space? I'm working with architects and rethinking floors in some of our buildings."

Sun is also working on integrating virtual world spaces like those in Second Life with real-world conference rooms, so dispersed employees can have productive meetings. "Ten years ago, a meeting was 15 people in a room and somebody calling in from an airport," Douglas says. "Today there are three in the room, five at home, and three in satellite offices."

Technologies like virtualization, which enable companies to separate software applications from specific computers and move digital tasks around fluidly, are key to more energy-efficient computing, Douglas says. The Holy Grail, which nobody does today, will be automatically turning computers on and off as they are needed.

He describes his fantasy: "Why can't we have 15 huge data centers around the world covered in solar panels and when the sun's out go completely off the grid? We could virtualize our computing tasks and move them in real time around the world to wherever energy is cheapest."

It's far from possible now, but the day may come when Sun helps you follow the sun.

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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.