Bob Metcalfe cheers global warming bubble

Energy is seeing Internet-speed innovation, which will challenge assumptions about how fast global warming and energy problems can be solved, says Internet figure Bob Metcalfe.

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
3 min read

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--Self-described "Internet tycoon" and venture capitalist Bob Metcalfe said that the world can solve global warming by transferring Silicon Valley-style entrepreneurship to the plodding energy field.

Metcalfe on Monday reprised his EnerNet talk where he draws on the history of the Internet to challenge today's thinking on energy. The co-inventor of Ethernet and current clean-tech investor at Polaris Ventures spoke at the Lux Research's Executive Summit here.

Bob Metcalfe

Overall, Metcalfe is optimistic that technology can solve the problem of global warming, either through through new technologies or geoengineering.

But he argues that many people are operating with the wrong assumptions of how the energy business works. Extrapolating today's energy technologies--the floor--on tomorrow's energy problems is the wrong way to look at the problem.

Instead, people should expect energy to change like the development of the Internet, where there were a number of disruptive technology introductions that were built on top of each other over time.

"If the Internet is any guide, it's going to take us decades to solve energy," Metcalfe said. "The fact that we are looking at long times suggests we should look at 'ceilings' (of technologies' potential) rather than floors (today's technology)."

Also, there are many business fields, or categories, that are now considered separate but do indeed overlap, the way that data, voice, and video eventually converged online.

In energy, government mandates favored the production of corn ethanol, which has created a food versus fuel debate that has brought criticism of biofuels. "When you muck with fuel markets, you are mucking with feeds and fuels also, we just found out," he said.

With the influx of venture capital going to fund clean, or green, tech start-ups, many people are concerned that there is an investment bubble.

Metcalfe sees a bubble forming around global warming, where there is a movement of consumers and businesses to address the problem. But bubbles are a good thing, Metcalfe said.

"From Internet history, we know that bubbles are normal. Bubbles are an accelerator of technology progress. Bubbles go against the status quo. We should encourage bubbles," he said.

Another against-the-grain view that Metcalfe likes to voice is that conservation, or efficiency, is not the best target when it comes to policy and investment.

The early scientists who worked on the precursor to the Internet decades ago designed networking protocols to operate on the existing copper-wire network. But technology advances and an infrastructure build-out proved that approach to be misguided. And the abundance of bandwidth and computing power led to more innovations like the World Wide Web, he said.

"Conservation should not be our goal," he said. "The goal should be to light up the whole world, not make the United States dark.

The topology of the Internet can also serve as a guide to the electricity distribution grid, Metcalfe said.

Much like workgroups formed in companies when local-area networks and PCs came about, the electricity distribution grid should develop to accommodate more distributed energy.

Several homes, for example, could share energy produced from a shared fuel cell. Energy should be exchanged along the "edge" of the network, rather than simply distributed from central stations. Energy storage, too, is essential to greater use of wind and solar energies, he said.

He suggests that research universities take the lead in energy innovation, where small teams of researchers and entrepreneurs compete against each other. As an example, he cited Web content-distribution network Akamai Technologies, which was created by people from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Some conference attendees challenged Metcalfe's parallels between the Internet and energy, noting that efficiency technologies cut waste and that solar, for example, has not had rapid innovation because government funding is very small compared with other technologies like nuclear.

Metcalfe's response was that getting Internet tycoons into the energy field will bring surprises, just the way they came to the Internet.

"It's easier to teach Silicon Valley innovation to energy than to accept energy's bad technology assumptions," he said.