Enernet: Using the Lessons of the Internet to Solve Energy

 

In the early 1970s, Professor Bob Metcalfe worked on the Arpanet, the precursor to the Internet. In the decades that followed, he both observed and participated in building the Internet as we know it today. He developed Ethernet and founded 3Com to sell it. He became publisher and columnist for InfoWorld, started technology conferences and became a venture capitalist.

Although the Internet is “not finished yet,” he recounted in a recent talk, “we solved information.” Now, he said, the lessons of the Internet can help us solve energy.

In his recent presentation, part of the Texas Enterprise Speaker Series, Professor Metcalfe spun out an hour-long analogy between information and energy, between the Internet and what he called the Enernet. Professor Metcalfe showed his audience how to look at energy with fresh eyes.

Some of the Internet lessons Professor Metcalfe discussed that could be applied to energy include:

Avoid hardening of the categories

In the very early days of the Internet, communications happened by telephone and calculation happened by computers. Once upon a time, voice, video and data were separate categories with separate networks. All of those are now considered data, and the Internet carries all of it. All of the innovations that made the Internet what it is would not have been possible had the original categorization continued.

  • Lesson for energy: Subsidizing feedstocks such as corn (for corn ethanol) can’t be done without also disrupting the price of food. Also, energy and the environment are not the same thing. We need cheap, clean energy, and we also need to solve the global warming problem. These are two different things.

Squanderable abundance

We use much more bandwidth now that the Internet has been established than we could even have conceived of using in the early days of the Arpanet.

  • Lesson for energy: If the Internet is any guide, when energy is solved, we will not be using less of it, but we will have created ways to create squanderably abundant, cheap, clean energy.

Surprises

The Arpanet was built to facilitate communications from one physical endpoint to another. It didn’t occur to anyone that one of its most popular uses would be to communicate from computer to computer within one building. Ethernet was invented to create a local network, and today Ethernet LAN traffic is dominant. Also, initially the Internet was built so that data was sent over wireless for the long haul and then through copper wiring to houses. But the opposite happened. Now data is sent over fiber networks for the long haul and then through wireless networks for the “last mile.”

  • Lesson for energy: Expect game-changing surprises.

Bubbles

The late 1990s Internet bubble is infamous, yet much of the technology that runs the Internet now was created during that bubble phase.

  • Lesson for energy: Expect speculative bubbles and use them to accelerate technological innovation.

Silver bullets

There was more than one “silver bullet” in the development of the Internet, but the main one Professor Metcalfe discussed was DWDM — dense wavelength division multiplexing. This technology allows for much larger amounts of data to be transmitted over fiber networks than previously was possible. DWDM is the reason why hardly anyone pays for long-distance anymore.

  • Lesson for energy: Expect silver bullets that we can’t even envision at this time.

Professor Metcalfe reminded the audience that applications such as YouTube were the furthest thing from the minds of anyone working on the Arpanet in the 1970s. He ended his talk by inviting his audience to imagine what uses could be found, what world problems we might solve, once we have a squanderable abundance of cheap, clean energy.

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Mentioned in this Article

Bob Metcalfe

Fellow of the Clint W. Murchison Sr. Chair of Free Enterprise Cockrell School of Engineering, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering

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About the Author

Renee Hopkins

Writer and Innochat Co-Founder, Innochat

Renee Hopkins was founding editor of Texas Enterprise. She writes extensively about innovation and...