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.

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