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Creating tech's role in energy conservation

Dust Networks co-founder Rob Conant urges the tech industry to take a higher profile in tackling the energy crisis.

Energy has been front-page news of late.

While Americans were taking comfort in air-conditioned homes during the summer, Congress passed a much-awaited energy reform bill. Meanwhile, trouble in the Middle East continues to interrupt the energy industry, and the effects of Hurricane Katrina are taking a toll not only on the residents of stricken areas, but also on the critical energy infrastructure across the country.

Strangely absent from discussion during this period has been the role of technology and the possibilities for groundbreaking energy-efficiency programs. What if the technology industry turned its immense power toward the practical problems of reducing energy consumption? What if the same inspiration that reduced enterprise financial inefficiencies was brought to bear on energy consumption and making energy control systems actionable?

And what if data from the physical world could be measured, managed and refined with the same degree of sophistication as the simplest e-commerce application?

Corporations are finally beginning to realize that the two very different worlds of energy controls and network management systems are about to collide. Data from the physical world--like temperature, light level, humidity, energy consumption, location, etc.--is about to enter the world of IT.

The two very different worlds of energy controls and network management systems are about to collide.

As an example, consider two seemingly nonrelated industries: automation companies (like Emerson, Honeywell, Johnson Controls, and Siemens), and networking and IT companies (like Cisco Systems, Nortel Networks, and IBM). These industries have grown up independently, have rarely had to interact and have certainly not worked toward common goals. That is about to change.

New wireless technologies are giving companies easier access to information about the physical world. With the dramatic reductions in the cost and complexity of collecting data from the physical world, companies can use the collected information to monitor, analyze and optimize physical processes and environments.

Combining physical and electronic data creates solutions that directly address customers' energy management concerns with real-world solutions. For example, a university can collect information about energy consumption across the entire campus and use that information to reduce energy use and bills. A big-box retailer can collect information about temperature, light level and foot traffic to optimize buildings for the most attractive shopping experience and maximize energy efficiency.

With effective networking of data from the physical world, this information can be brought into business intelligence applications, enterprise resource planning systems, and compliance monitoring systems to reduce energy consumption, as well as reduce costs, increase safety and ensure compliance.

Given the various physical and financial challenges of collecting information from these environments, one cost-effective and low-maintenance solution is through employing wireless mesh networking technology. Mesh networks are comprised of highly reliable, distributed, wireless, and self-correcting nodes.

Intelligence is distributed between the nodes without assistance from a central controller. Each node forms multiple, redundant paths with its neighbors, and data is automatically passed, node-to-node, along the most reliable delivery path--an important concern in harsh environments that are otherwise unsuitable to conventional networking technologies.

Power line independence reduces the complexity of setting up a network and eliminates issues related to powering routers and planning router capacity. Furthermore, low-power devices consume very little of the same asset--energy--that is being monitored and conserved.

Technologies such as wireless mesh networking are an important step toward a future when all enterprise data--physical or electronic--can be integrated. As energy becomes a more expensive business asset, the move to reduce energy use in lighting, heating, and cooling systems effectively translates into long-term energy conservation.

And as the technology proves itself in the market, the move to apply networking technology to energy management issues via mesh networks will become the standard. It is through this concerted effort that technology innovators will have contributed to a solution to one of the nation's most pressing concerns.