The energy web

It's hard to believe that a book published in 2002 could have opened like this:

The energy crisis of the 1970s is a fading memory. We appear to be awash in oil. Oil prices in the spring of 2002 hovered at $24 per barrel on the world markets
the cost of heating oil is flat. Talk of energy conservation, once a national pastime, is now heard only infrequently, both here in the United States and in other industrialized nations.
The book is Jeremy Rifkin's The Hydrogen Economy. While not as original as Rifkin's The Age of Access (which I reviewed three years ago), it's a useful synthesis of a lot of the best thinking about where we are, how we got there, and what's next.

Today we're at $50 per barrel. I flinched this morning when the furnace kicked on. Yet neither of our presidential candidates (including the one who isn't an oil man) is talking energy policy. I can understand why conservation is a non-starter. Nobody wins votes by appearing on television wearing a sweater and talking about sacrifice, as Jimmy Carter did. But there is a looming Kennedy-esque challenge that could galvanize the country. Not a moon shot, but instead a crash program to kick-start a new energy regime, defuse the geopolitical time-bomb, and usher in a new era of abundance.

Rifkin begins with a survey of predictions from experts as to when the Hubbert Peak -- the point at which half of all recoverable oil has been burned -- will occur. They're divided into two camps, he concludes: those who think "production is likely to peak in 28 - 38 years and those who think it is more likely to peak in 8 - 18 years." No matter how you slice it, that's not a whole lot of time in which to effect a grand transformation.

Most of the book wraps various contexts -- political, religious, and thermodynamic -- around that impending transformation. Its title notwithstanding, there's relatively less analysis of the role of hydrogen in a future energy system. But Rifkin does stress the crucial concept of an "energy web," which was also popularized by Steve Silberman in Wired 9.07. "The best minds in electricity R&D have a plan," the Wired article announced. "Every node in the power network of the future will be awake, responsive, adaptive, price-smart, eco-sensitive, real-time, flexible, humming - and interconnected with everything else."

The parallels between the world wide web and the energy web highlight the central role that IT will play in our energy future. The Wired article paints the big picture, but the most complete and most evocative vision I've found is the EPRI (Electric Power Research Institute) Roadmap (minimal registration required, unfortunately), a 14MB 176-page PDF file that stands in sharp contrast to the government's 2.5MB 170-page National-Energy-Policy.pdf.

(It's really lame, by the way, that documents of such importance are only available in PDF format. There is very little need to print them. There's a great need to open them up to inbound links so they can more effectively merge with the public conversation. But I digress.)

The EPRI roadmap takes a long view. The emergence of hydrogen as a complementary energy carrier, the decentralization of power generation, and the shift to renewable sources are seen as later-stage developments. The plan's first priority is to modernize the power grid in order to "meet the precision-power requirements of the emerging digital economy." The expected payoff is twofold. First, to reduce the cost of power outages -- both the direct cost of business losses, and the indirect cost of maintaining backup generating capability. Second, to maximize the efficiency of power use by making it responsive to price.

It's crazy, when you think about it, that your phone bill is exquisitely itemized but your electicity bill is a single number. According to EPRI:

The ultimate force pulling the electricity sector into the 21st century will likely be the technologies of electricity demand -- specifically, intelligent technologies enabling ever-broader consumer involvement in defining and controlling their electricity-based service needs. As long as consumer involvement is limited to the on/off switch and time-of-day pricing, the commodity paradigm will continue to dominate the business and require regulation to protect a relatively weak consumer from cost-constrained suppliers. [EPRI Roadmap]

The Roadmap contains a stunning amount of detail, and lays out a carefully staged sequence of phases. What's striking about the document as a whole, though, is the architectural vision it presents. That vision dovetails beautifully with current IT trends. For example:

Digital technology will also be able to open the industrial, commercial, and residential gateways now constrained by the meter, allowing price signals, decisions, communications, and network intelligence to flow back and forth through the two-way "energy/information portal." The portal will provide both the physical and logical links that allow the communication of electronic messages from the external network to consumer networks and intelligent equipment. For consumers and service providers alike, this offers a tool for moving beyond the commodity paradigm of 20th century electricity service. It will complete the transformation of the electricity system functionality, and enable a set of new energy information services more diverse and valuable than those available from today's telecommunications industry. Some of the specific capabilities of the energy/information portal include: [EPRI Roadmap]

At one point, the report spells out fourteen "limiting challenges" -- energy infrastructure security, high-efficiency end uses, etc. -- and compares current investment to recommended investment. The current number (as of 2003) was $3.8 billion yearly. The recommended number was $9.9 billion. That's an order of magnitude smaller than the price tag for the Iraq adventure.

Then again, it's probably just as well that neither party has latched onto the EPRI plan. Look at what NASA's future has become. Maybe an new entrepeneurial partnership between energy and IT is all we really need.

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