Metcalfe: Easier for Entrepreneurs to Learn Energy Biz Than Vice-versa

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Bob Metcalfe, the father of Ethernet and Metcalfe’s Law and the founder of 3Com (s coms), has been very vocal with his belief that the lessons learned from building the Internet can apply to the next generation of energy infrastructure. That includes issues like constructing networks that are decentralized, distributed and two-way, which he details to Fortune in an article this morning. His ideas are also the reason that he’ll be giving a keynote speech at our Green:Net conference in San Francisco in March, which will be focusing on how the tools developed in the infotech revolution will be used to fight climate change.

In particular, Metcalfe thinks it’s easier for entrepreneurs that cut their teeth in the Internet world to move into the energy arena than it is for old-skool energy execs to learn the mindset of entrepreneurialism As he tells Fortune:

“The world should be happy that a bunch of Internet people like me have turned their attention to energy because that’s how we are going to solve it…It is easier to teach energy to people who are steeped in the entrepreneurial culture than it is to teach entrepreneurial culture to people who know energy.”

He also adds that, “People who have worked for BP for 25 years have no entrepreneurial bones.” Part of that assertion is Metcalfe’s defense of his own moves into energy and cleantech — I’ve always gotten the impression when I’ve talked to him that he felt unfairly labeled as a carpetbagger type, moving into the energy field with little prior experience.

Yet it’s an interesting question — where the innovation will come from, newcomers or the incumbents? — and one that is being fiercely debated. Entrenched oil, fossil fuel and utility executives have the connections and know-how to make change, but less of a motivation. On the other hand, former Internet executives have a lot of disruptive ideas but a lot less background and knowledge — and the energy industry is about hard-core science (knowledge can be harder to accrue) and large, capital-intensive projects (mistakes can be expensive). Where do you think the innovation will come from?

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