'Enernet'--a smart-grid vision from a Net tycoon

At the GreenNet conference in San Francisco, Ethernet co-inventor Bob Metcalfe talks about Internet principles that should be applied to building a "smart" energy grid.

Erik Palm
Erik Palm, a business reporter for Swedish national television, is joining CNET News as a spring 2009 fellow with Stanford University's Innovation Journalism program. When he's not working, he enjoys kayaking and exploring California's hiking trails. E-mail Erik.
Erik Palm
2 min read

Bob Metcalfe Erik Palm/CNET

The same type of innovation and entrepreneurship that built the Internet should be applied to building a smart grid for a "squanderable abundance" of cheap and clean energy. That was one of the main messages from Bob Metcalfe, co-inventor of Ethernet, during his keynote speech at the GreenNet conference on Tuesday.

The San Francisco conference was aimed at outlining a way forward for a smart grid.

Metcalfe, founder of 3Com and now a venture capitalist at Polaris Venture Partners, said energy people don't like that IT entrepreneurs are getting into their field. But, he added, it's easier to teach energy to entrepreneurs than to teach entrepreneurship to the energy industry. He has a name for his Internet-influenced vision of a smart grid: the Enernet, which he expanded on in an interview with CNET News.

The Enernet "needs to have an architecture, probably needs some layers, standards, and storage," he said. "The Internet has lots of storage here and there; the current grid doesn't have much storage at all."

While some scientists, and even CEOs of oil companies, talk about peaking energy supplies, Metcalfe thinks we shouldn't build the smart grid with a focus on conserving energy. Instead, we should build the Enernet for much more energy.

"When we set out to build the Internet, we began with conserving bandwidth, with compression, packet switching, multiplex terminals, and buffer terminals aimed at conserving bandwidth," he said.

"Now, decades later, are we using less bandwidth now than before? Of course not. We are using million times more bandwidth. If the Internet is any guide, when we are done solving energy, we are not going to use less energy but much, much more--a squanderable abundance, just like we have in computation."

Bob Metcalfe video
Video: At GreenNet, Bob Metcalfe explains how Washington actually helped the Internet, and where the best place to look for green innovations are. Click the image to watch.

Some scientists say that there are limits to how much energy can be produced and that Metcalfe's thesis goes against nature.

"There were scientists in the Internet saying that there were certain laws of nature that could not be violated, but the engineers and scientists figured out ways around them," he countered. "So I am not ready to concede to these scientists."

Metcalfe invests for Polaris, which focuses on IT, life sciences, and energy. He believes that solar, geothermal, nuclear fission, and fusion will all be important sources of the new, clean energy.

But "probably not wind," he said. "I am not against wind. Wind is off to a great start. It is sort of a leading renewable. There just isn't much of it."

Metcalfe warns that the main problems plaguing the Internet--security, quality of service, and lack of a proper financing structure--will dog the smart grid as well. He likens the energy-investment bubble to the Internet-investment bubble that came before it, and even thinks global warming is a bubble which, in economic terms, is already bursting.

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He adds that the Internet took a long time to build, pegging the transistor's birth in 1946 as the start of the Internet--which coincidentally is his own birth year. Similarly, he expects the Enernet to take a long time to evolve.

"It's going to take us 62 years," he said. "It's going to take long time. This not a thing that is going to take a year or two."