Finding a niche in "green" industries isn't an easy task for resellers and solutions providers.
Young companies scaling the maturation curve may not prove the most stable prospects. And sectors of the green economy are struggling at the moment. Solar panel manufacturers in the United States, for example, face pricing pressure from low-cost photovoltaic cells from China. The Solar Energy Industries Association this month reported that PV prices have continued to drop, despite the federal government's imposition of tariffs.
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"PV manufacturers saw little relief from global oversupply in 2012, as manufacturer margins remained depressed and less-competitive facilities were shuttered around the world," the report noted.
Yet some solutions providers seek to cultivate business in the field of sustainability, which covers areas ranging from energy conservation to the reduction of carbon emissions. Some emerging sustainability technology solution sets have broad application: software that lets businesses track and report on their sustainability efforts, for instance. Others have a vertical orientation, such as solutions that help architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) companies design green buildings using building modeling principles.
Debbie Altham, co-president of Sustainable Dynamics, which focuses on what the company terms "sustainability-enhanced" enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, said sustainability isn't strictly an eco-friendly concept. Companies that reduce energy consumption, she noted, save money.
"It's not tree-hugging stuff," she said. "It's basic commercial business sense. Businesses need to be smarter, and this is one way of being smarter."
Sustainable Dynamics, with offices in Overland Park, Kan., and Auckland, New Zealand, launched in July 2012. The solution provider is developing an extension of Microsoft Dynamics AX that will allow companies to manage their sustainability campaigns. She founded the company after deciding to align her ERP business with customers that shared similar values.
Altham found a common theme when talking with organic food producers and asking them about their interests: a concern with people and planet in addition to profit. That philosophy has been dubbed the "triple bottom line," or 3BL. She said midmarket companies lack tools that address the 3BL.
"I realized there is a huge [potential] in building measurement tools to help them ... manage their sustainability," she said.
The first phase of Sustainable Dynamics' green ERP rollout will focus on data collection and reporting. Altham said the task of compiling sustainability information -- water and energy usage, for example -- has proven difficult for companies.
"What we try to do is take away the data collection headache," Altham said.
The company's Dynamics add-on will incorporate sustainability reporting metrics into the ERP system. Specifically, Sustainability Dynamics will use the Global Reporting Initiative's Sustainability Reporting Framework to guide its reporting capabilities. The GRI framework establishes a series of metrics, including energy consumption, percentage of water recycled and greenhouse gas emissions.
Eventually, the company will look to integrate decision-making tools into ERP, Altham noted. Those tools would let manufacturers evaluate different manufacturing processes on the basis of how much energy each approach consumes or the amount of emissions it produces.
"Until they have the numbers in front of them, those are gut-feel decisions," she said.
While Sustainability Dynamics pursues the midmarket, SAP offers sustainability technology for larger enterprises, Altham explained.
SAP's sustainability performance management software automates data collection and reporting. In addition, SAP partners with BrownFlynn, a sustainability consulting firm based in Highland Heights, Ohio, to offer GRI-certified sustainability training programs. Oracle Corp., meanwhile, offers its Environmental Accounting and Reporting product, which adds sustainability reporting to its ERP software.
Sustainability also applies to building design and construction. Sustainable design aims to promote structures that use energy efficiently, minimize environmental impact and boost indoor air quality. The approach also supports the idea of sourcing green building materials -- those that use recycled material, for example.
Specialized solutions providers, particularly those targeting the AEC space, are finding opportunities in sustainability consulting and other products and services.
Applied Software, an Atlanta-based professional services firm in the AEC and manufacturing sectors, is seeing increased activity in sustainable design. Rabi Sidawi, senior AEC solutions consultant at Applied Software, said recent developments in government and industry standards have made builders more aware of what takes place environmentally inside and outside of a building.
Sidawi cited the U.S. Green Building Council, an organization that promotes green buildings, and Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), a program that provides third-party verification of green structures, as two examples. LEED certifies buildings on four levels: certified, silver, gold and platinum.
Sidawi said a building owner might want a new structure to aim for one of those certification levels. Tax incentives are available for companies that reach particular green objectives, he noted.
"They get some money back if they have achieved a certain level of LEED certification," Sidawi said.
The process of building information modeling (BIM) is one catalyst for sustainable design. With a BIM-based approach, 3-D models of buildings are created that let architects and engineers collaborate on planning and design. Products in this space include Autodesk Inc.'s Revit and Graphisoft's ArchiCAD.
Andy Ebbern, market development manager at Smart Technologies Inc., a collaboration solutions provider in Calgary, Alberta, that works in the AEC space, said BIM has started to gain adoption after a slow beginning. He said governments and building owners are now dictating the use of BIM.
In addition, BIM software has become more sophisticated. He said a building modeling tool can model thousands of permutations of how a building is positioned on a site to come up with the optimal orientation for energy efficiency.
Ebbern said Smart looks to inject that same efficiency into how AEC firms conduct meetings. Smart offers interactive whiteboards that integrate with some of the leading BIM software products, he noted. That link-up lets architects, structural engineers, electrical engineers and other stakeholders work with the 3-D models on a large display. Remote users may also participate in whiteboard meetings via Smart's Bridgit conferencing software or other tools such as Citrix Systems Inc.'s GoToMeeting, Cisco Systems Inc.'s WebEx and Microsoft Corp.'s Lync.
To the next level
AEC firms initially use BIM software to create 3-D virtual environments that describe a building's geometry and to produce construction documents. But some customers are now asking Applied Software to help them "move to the next level of BIM," according to Sidawi.
The next level involves analysis and simulation. In that regard, sustainability technology software tools can help AEC companies use BIM models to predict a building's performance over time. Those products include Integrated Environmental Solutions' VE line of energy analysis tools.
Another trend: BIM may be employed in component-based model analysis, which focuses on the environmental impact of discrete elements, such as heating and cooling systems, interior fans and lighting. In contrast, whole-building analysis considers the wide-angle view of a building's energy use in light of weather patterns.
Michael Ruiz, vice president of business strategy and business development at Applied Software, said the company recently worked on a General Services Administration contract to conduct a component-based model analysis on the planned renovation of a federal building. The goal was to see how the building components would affect worker comfort and productivity, while finding opportunities to reduce energy costs.
The component-based aspect of building modeling is increasing in importance, as customers seek to understand their buildings -- inside and out.
"It's a growing area for all of us and for the industry," Ruiz said.