It's only January, but I can already cast a confident vote for the most important figure in green technology for 2010.

And the best part is that it isn't intentional. He doesn't even participate in the market.

Mark Benioff, the founder and CEO of who always seems to be in need a shave, has become the inadvertent father of modern energy efficiency. Look at all of the building management companies or carbon accounting software developers that have emerged over the last few years. Nearly all of them rely on the software-as-a-service model devised by Salesforce.

This idea struck me tonight as I was hosting a panel on green IT: four panelists came from companies based around SaaS and the fifth offered managed services through software, which is basically the same thing. The SaaS mantra has also been reiterated in a wide variety of pitches. (A close runner-up for my vote, by the way, is Elon Musk, who remains one of the people most responsible for the re-emergence of a viable electric car industry. In fact, Musk wouldn't be a bad choice for Time's Person of the Year issue in December, if you think about it hard enough and if the current political stalemate continues. Person of the Year 2009: Steve Chu and his larger-than-life checkbook.)

It can be argued that the SaaS model embodies the green ethos in two key ways. First, it maximizes hardware and networking resources, thereby reducing the power needed to make equipment or run broadband networks.

Second, many of the services offered via SaaS might not be possible otherwise. Consider the case of EcoFactor, which offers home energy management automation. The company plans to resell the service through broadband providers like AT&T or Comcast. Five years ago, similar services might have cost several hundred dollars a year per household, which equates to more than the cost of the energy saved. (GridPoint, the well-funded smart grid company, actually initially tried to sell energy management services at the beginning of the last decade. It got few takers.)

Now, a similar service can probably be offered in the tens of dollars, resulting in a net gain for the consumer. These declining prices may ultimately allow carriers to give away the service as a way to keep down churn, an idea advanced by John Steinberg, EcoFactor's CEO, who was also on the panel.

While people still argue over whether Benioff actually created the concept, he certainly helped popularize it with corporations, which in turn has cleared the runway for all of the recently developed energy-efficiency applications that have embraced the SaaS paradigm. It's sort of like what the feed-in tariff did for the solar industry. Additionally, efficiency applications will likely start to get adopted broadly. Electric cars will be begin to more noticeable, but according to an IDC estimate, only about 30,000 will likely emerge from factories: a small number compared to the milions of gas-burning cars in use. Cellulosic biofuel makers will likely still be seeking cash.

For the record, I feel compelled to disclose that I have received unsolicited copies of books from Salesforce, but, like most other technology journalists, have used them only to prop up my impressive collection of old coffee cups.