Bob Metcalfe's EnerNet embraces 'global warming bubble'

The bubble in clean tech is because of global warming--and we can solve global warming if we take our cue from the Internet, says Ethernet icon Bob Metcalfe.

BOSTON--Bob Metcalfe thinks we'll solve global warming if we take our cue from the Internet.

Metcalfe, best known as a co-inventor of the Ethernet and now a venture capitalist at Polaris Venture Partners, on Wednesday laid out his vision of the "EnerNet," the concept of applying the lessons of building the Internet to the energy business.

Bob Metcalfe discusses the Martin LaMonica/CNET Networks

Speaking at the AlwaysOn East conference here, Metcalfe said that, despite concerns of overinvestment , the growing energy technology bubble is a good thing.

"There will be many decades of bubbles ahead," he said. "There are people out there trying to outlaw them, particularly the sore losers. But they are accelerators to technology innovation."

He argued that the history of technology is marked by bubbles of overinvestment, from the PC to the Internet, voice over IP, and others.

The same is happening in global warming. Concerns over global warming have spurred billions of dollars in investment from venture capitalists and government research to create low-polluting alternatives to fossil fuels.

"There is definitely a global warming bubble and one of the ways I know that is because the name Al Gore (is present)," Metcalfe joked. "Al Gore inflated the Internet bubble and now he's inflating the global warming bubble."

For the record, Metcalfe does not like to use the term "clean tech" because energy needs to be clean and cheap. Nor does he like the color green, as in "green tech," because political greens are anticapitalism and antitechnology, he said.

As a writer for CNET's Green Tech blog, I take issue with the idea that environmentalists can't be capitalists--we're seeing them every day. But Metcalfe has a point about extreme green politicos.

Metcalfe's EnerNet seeks to apply Internet principles to the energy business. Martin LaMonica/CNET Networks

Metcalfe's preferred colors for the EnerNet are black and blue. Black is the color of oil, coal, and silicon (the main ingredient in solar panels). And blue is the color of water, which covers most of the Earth.

In addition to touting the global warming bubble and the companies he has invested in--he is now interim CEO of algae fuel company GreenFuel Technologies--Metcalfe sought to dispel some myths, again taking his lessons from the Internet.

There's an oft-recited view that there is no silver bullet to mitigate climate change--there needs to be a "silver buckshot" approach by which many technologies are pursued.

But Metcalfe said that in the growth of the Internet, there were several silver bullets, from technologies to make bandwidth use more efficient to punch cards.

He also showed no sadness over the demise of Bell Labs and other monopoly corporation-funded research. Government-funded research is wasted because it rarely leaves the labs, he said.

Instead, the place to do research is in university labs. "The best vehicle for technology innovation is not patents, it's students," Metcalfe said.

He said the same cast of characters that built the Internet--scientists, students, businesspeople, and investors--are the ones to build the global warming bubbles on the way to solving the energy crisis.

Metcalfe has only been investing in the energy field for a few years--of course, he's learning a lot about the algae industry in his current role.

But his comparisons are instructive. Like the Internet, energy will be distributed; there will be a layered architecture that provides flexibility; and energy should be cheap and abundant like bandwidth is becoming.

As for the desirability of a global warming bubble, I'm less convinced. Business disasters could turn investors and entrepreneurs away from the energy field, when they are clearly needed. But then again, it sure makes for a good speech--and headline.

 

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