Green:Net: Greentech Innovation Comes From Computing Power, Says Bill Gross

The cost of commodities trend in one direction: up. Coal, oil, gold, even rice, it’s all the same, said greentech and software pioneer Bill Gross at Earth2Tech’s Green:Net conference today. “The one thing that’s going down is the cost of computational power. That’s the one resource we’re going to have plentifully in the future.” So what greentech entrepreneurs should do, according to Gross, is focus on ways to innovate that are computationally hard. That’s the quickest way to get to Gross’ projected world energy usage of 50 terawatts per day by 2050.

At Green:Net, Bill Gross wasn’t the only prominent proponent of Moore’s Law — which states that a single chip’s capacity for transistors will double every two years. The venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson used his talk to describe the opportunity of information technology becoming more efficient (read our write-up).

Gross’ first company, which he start back in the 10th grade, was actually in the solar energy space, he said, inspired in part by the shortages that had car drivers lining up to get to the gas station in 1973. Under the name Solar Devices, Gross sold plans for Stirling Engines for $4 through the back pages of Popular Science.

And Gross is still working on the task of turning heat energy into mechanical energy. He spoke of Infinia, which innovated a 40 percent increase in Stirling Engine efficiency. The company modeled every possible optimization, picked the two best ones, mated them together, then repeated that for 1,000 generations. It took less than two days to simulate a million engines. “The computation power to enable that was not even possible five years ago,” said Gross.

Gross spoke of another of his companies, the electric car maker Aptera. The Aptera car is currently at 230 miles per gallon. It shaved off MPG by using computational fluid dynamics — enclosing the wheels was worth 30 MPG, tapering the back of the vehicle earned 7 MPG. “It’s amazing to see what you can find through these iterations,” said Gross. The Aptera car now has 2.11 total drag (drag coefficient multiplied by the size of the front of the vehicle), which is less than a 10-speed bicycle (which is at 3.42 total drag).

Lastly, Gross talked about eSolar, where he was CEO until recently. That company improved solar energy farms by honing the way its many mirrors are built and calibrated. First, shipping containers can transport items up to 88 inches. By fitting under that mark, mirrors can be assembled in a factor rather than in the field after they’ve been shipped. Then, using an accordion rack structure, the company avoided set-up labor cost and complications. And lastly, building a series of towers around the solar panels, it used high-resolution cameras and complex software to detect the beams of every mirror, then calibrate them and manipulate them automatically. Now the mirrors are accurately positioned to one twentieth of a degree, instead of two degrees.

Through the power of computation, Gross said he thinks the cost of solar power can “get within striking distance” of the price of coal in next 3-5 years.

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