Earth Networks prepares for shift in direction with greenhouse gas initiative

By Steven Overly
Capital Business Staff Writer
Monday, February 7, 2011

Billions of updates on temperature, wind and other weather conditions flood into Earth Networks' Germantown headquarters each day from its global network of 8,000 sensors. The reams of data have transformed the company from an education outlet to a primary provider of weather information to the government, corporations and the public.

Now the company, formerly known as AWS Convergence Technologies, is moving to create a network that will tally greenhouse gas emissions at 100 locations around the world. The project, a joint venture with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, represents a shift in direction for the company and one of its largest undertakings since its formation in 1993.

Robert S. Marshall, the company's co-founder, president and chief executive, said he could never have predicted how big the company has become when he and a team of entrepreneurs, including WUSA (Channel 9) meteorologist Topper Shutt, started the venture.

"We had no idea what the network would be used for," Marshall said. " . . . We had no idea what all the data would be. We just knew if we created the network, the data would have value one day."

The company now employs 180 people and is in the process of hiring more. Its Web site for WeatherBug, the company's consumer application for computers and smartphones, was the 35th-most-trafficked Web property in the country in December, with more than 32 million unique visitors, according to Reston-based Web tracker ComScore. Chief Financial Officer Rich Spaulding said Earth Networks has turned a profit for several years. (The privately held company declined to be more precise or give revenue figures).

The decision to begin measuring greenhouse gas emissions comes at a time when the climate science community is starved for data, but Marshall envisions a customer base far beyond the scientific community.

Government scientists will have access to the information for free. The company will instead target industries that produce and absorb carbon, as well as schools and television news outlets that can use the information for educational purposes.

Industries that generate greenhouse gases could buy the data to track output while agriculture companies could measure how much they sequester, or absorb, from the atmosphere. Marshall said if those companies strike up carbon credit agreements, the data can be used to verify its terms are being met.

The network will initially contain 50 sensors in the United States and 50 abroad. Each will monitor an area about the size of Kansas but detect smaller, more specific locations that emit more carbon than others. The project will cost about $25 million over five years, and it should be operational in about 18 months, executives said.

"The weather data here is absolutely critical," Marshall said. "All of that data from the weather stations is being used to produce these estimates of where the carbon came from."

Executives at Earth Networks said they will not be making the final call on the source of greenhouse gases. The company has no intentions of inserting itself into a politically charged debate, Marshall said. Instead, it plans to adhere to government specifications on equipment and metrics.

"If we do something wrong and don't measure it right . . . we're going to get highly scrutinized," he said.

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