Metcalfe on Smart Grid: If It Works, We'll Use More Energy Not Less


Ethernet inventor turned cleantech venture capitalist Bob Metcalfe has always been one to peer into the future and make aggressive predictions. It turns out he was right about a lot to do with the Internet, including Metcalfe’s Law, which essentially says the value of a network goes up in proportion to the number of users. While it’s still unclear whether or not he has an equally good handle on predicting what the future of energy will look like, that’s not stopping him from trying. One of his more aggressive energy predictions: If the smart grid works like it should, we’ll be using more energy, not less, in the future, he tells Forbes in an interview this week (hat tip GigaOM Pro, subscription required). He said as much at our Green:Net 09 conference in March, too.

On the face of it, the statement sounds ridiculous — the smart grid will be adding digital intelligence to help utilities better manage and conserve power. But Metcalfe is not looking forward one decade, but more like six decades. His argument is that far into the future the smart grid will enable the use of all clean energy and because it’s renewable (not finite) it will be cheap and abundant. At Green:Net he called it “a squanderable amount of cheap and clean energy.”

It’s a nice idea. After spending the next century conserving and cutting back on our lifestyles in order to fight climate change and keep carbon emissions out of the atmosphere, I’d look forward to an era in which people can once again be glutenous energy hogs because energy is no longer dirty or finite. In that world, all hail the electric Hummer, because the power grid would be 100 percent clean.

His argument is also based on studying the history of the Internet. He uses the example that the architects of the Internet built efficiency and conservation features into the early Internet to preserve bandwidth, but that nowadays we use much more bandwidth than was ever expected. The same goes for cheap and clean power, is his argument.

But to be honest I’m not sure energy will ever be 100 percent clean. How long until people stop using natural gas (a fossil fuel) for power? Probably longer than a century; the policymakers in Washington have lately taken to lauding it for vehicle transportation and power plants. So for the foreseeable future, let’s consider energy conservation the top priority — which everyone who’s building out the beginnings of the smart grid clearly does.


Joel Greenberg

Metcalfe mentions this in all his talks, so I asked him to clarify what he meant by it when I recently interviewed him for my Tech2Energy podcast. “If the Internet is any guide, when we are done solving energy,” said Metcalfe, “…which I don’t think will happen for decades…but when we’re done solving energy, we will not being use less energy than we use now. We’ll be using more. A lot more. That is, if we make energy cheap and clean…and by the way, it can’t just be cheap and it can’t just be clean, it has to be both, cheap and clean…when we succeed at that…the amount of energy available to us and the amount of energy we consume will be a lot more. I don’t mean 50% more; I’m talking ten times more, a hundred times more than we use now because it will be squanderably abundant the way bandwidth is now.”

This is Metcalfe’s long-term prediction. Maybe within our lifetime. To act like his prediction has come true today, or in the near future, is an incorrect extrapolation of his idea.

I agree with you, I think efficiency is more appropriate right now while we as a culture work a number of tracks in parallel, the “Enernet” being one of those parallel tracks. I believe “efficiency” is a more useful concept than “conservation.” “Conservation” has a shade of meaning that implies doing without, whereas “efficiency” means doing more with less.

But to put timelines in perspective, if you take a look at the payback for commercial and/or residential solar power, or commercial and/or residential energy retrofits for buildings and houses, the pay back is generally in the 10-15 year time frame. When Metcalfe talks “decades”, he’s talking at least 20 years, if not 30, 40 or longer. So efficiency has a shorter payback of at least 1/2 to 1/4 of the time Metcalfe is talking about. And, it’s much easier to implement.

We can add solar and do energy efficiency retrofits today. Right now. With existing technology, infrastructure, and companies.

As a futurist’s goal setting statement, I think Metcalfe’s idea is useful in that we create the future we envision.

Joel Greenberg
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Ban Fire. It’s the only way that energy will ever be completely clean. No burning coal, no burning gas, no campfires. Well… Oh, too, btw. Fire was created by the devil, and until we learn that, we will continue to suffer him, and suffer each other.


I would agree that eventually use will go up but not because it’s all clean and people feel good about using it. I think it will go up because there will be more value in using it. If it truly becomes a “smart grid”, we will all want to use it more. Compare it to telecom networks. As the intelligence grew, so did usage. Cable TV networks and the internet are other examples. The “smart grid” will drive more applications and more usage.

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