4 Clean Energy Lessons Bob Metcalfe Learned From the Internet

Bob Metcalfe, the father of Ethernet and founder of 3Com, has been mining the “rich vein” of Internet history to inform the next generation of energy technology — or “enertech” (energy technology), as he likes to call it. In an article in Scientific American this month, Metcalfe, who now heads up energy investments for Polaris Venture Partners, outlines these four lessons for keeping energy innovation on track:

1) Don’t stick to hard-and-fast categories: The divide between telecommunications and computing — voice and data — has blurred as communications networks have merged to provide both. It’s a blurring, Metcalfe says, that should be kept in mind when it comes to energy definitions like “feed,” “food” and “fuel” — just look at corn ethanol.

2) Obey the laws: Metcalfe created Metcalfe’s Law, which calculates the value of the network effect on computing; the future of clean power generation will be distributed and networked as well, he says. The development of the Internet also revealed that users’ desire for bandwidth is insatiable and building the Internet was not about conserving bandwidth, he says. Likewise consumers will have an unending desire for energy and the energy crisis will not be solved through conservation.

3) Watch out, Washington: Cleantech is going to Washington, prompting Metcalfe to warn that the people running it can “be dangerous and downright mean.” And pay attention to what you’re asking for, he says.

4) What scale can really mean: As the Internet was being created, it was often said that technologies that couldn’t “scale” and serve everyone were not viable, says Metcalfe. But often that just meant that incumbent technologies took precedence over new, cutting-edge ones. That could easily happen for clean power, too.


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