HALF MOON BAY, Calif. – Green Wombat has been at Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech conference the past few days, the highlight of which for me was leading a session on energy with Vint Cerf. Known as the “father of the Internet” for his role in co-creating its underlying technology, Cerf is now a Google (GOOG) vice president and its chief Internet evangelist.
The idea: Brainstorm with 40 high-powered participants – everyone from Idealab’s Bill Gross (chairman of solar power plant company eSolar) to Stan Williams of Hewlett-Packard’s (HPQ) Quantum Systems Labs to venture capitalist Richard Wong of Accel Partners. The task we set out: Devise solutions to Al Gore’s challenge last week for the United States to obtain 100% of its electricity from renewable energy by 2018. Piece of cake.
Sorry, Al, we didn’t come up with a 12-step plan to kick America’s addiction to the black stuff – oil and coal. But the wide-ranging discussion underscored the complexity of the challenge and the fact that a solar-power-plant and wind-farm building boom is but one part of the big fix.
First, said one participant, we must create the “energy Internet.” In other words, a smart transmission grid that can get electricity generated from desert solar power stations and High Plains wind farms to other regions of the country as well as manage “distributed energy” from such things as rooftop solar panels. Another technological challenge that must be overcome: energy storage to capture electricity produced by solar and wind power stations for use when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing.
For many in the room, just as critical is the need to reduce energy demand, increase public awareness and devise the right economic incentives to promote green power and lower electricity consumption. As more than a few participants noted, Americans use more than twice as much electricity per capita as Europeans.
Gross suggests establishing a floor on electricity prices – say 10 cents/kilowatt hour – to allow renewable energy companies to get up and running and achieve economies of scale to compete against coal and natural gas.
Given the techie crowd – Silicon Valley is just over the hill from Half Moon Bay – some of the more interesting ideas were about how to use software and Web 2.0 tools to change consumer behavior and awareness about energy consumption. For the home there needs to be an energy meter that provides constant feedback on the electricity usage – and the charges incurred – of individual appliances and gadgets, like that laptop you left plugged in. Your mobile GPS-enabled phone could monitor your driving habits, suggesting ways to consolidate trips, report your fuel efficiency and ping you about your home energy use. Another idea; Embed carbon footprint data in individual products, so that consumers can scan them with their phones when making purchasing decisions.
(Another provocative idea that Cerf discussed with me before the session: How to re-architect the suburbs when the aging baby boom generation begins to abandon their McMansions in search of housing and a lifestyle less isolated and closer to shops and services.)
Beyond technological innovation, the overriding sentiment was that the president and Congress must show leadership in establishing a national renewable energy policy that commits the resources and sense of urgency of a 21st century Manhattan project.
Coincidentally, the day before the session I moderated a panel at Google on renewable energy sponsored by the California Clean Tech Open, a contest that provides seed capital and services to incubate green startups with promising business plans. This year’s finalists, announced Tuesday, include several companies developing software and services to monitor and cut home and business energy consumption. Judging by the overflow crowd – some 350 people with a line out the door – there’s no shortage of talent in the Valley interested in green tech.
Among those present was Bob Cart, CEO of San Francisco-based Green Volts, which is developing concentrating photovoltaic power plants. Green Volts was a 2006 Clean Tech Open winner and Cart told Green Wombat that less than two years later the company is breaking ground this week on its first power plant, which will generate two megawatts of electricity for utility PG&E (PCG).
Green tech innovation can come from some improbable places. Rock star and home-brew technologist Neil Young closed out Brainstorm Tech on Wednesday by taking the stage for an interview with Time Inc. editor-in-chief John Huey. Young has been working with a far-flung group of technologists and auto enthusiasts to convert a 1959 Lincoln Continental Mark IV into a 100-mpg, Internet-enabled bio-electric-hybrid. He told Huey the Continental is just one of several green car projects he has under way.
“We have an onboard fuel creation device on an Envoy in Adelaide, Australia,” Young said. That prompted Cerf to ask from the audience, “You mentioned onboard fuel production. This car doesn’t happen to run on piss, does it?” Young laughed, “It could.”
The songwriter and political provocateur said he was focusing on land yachts – the Continental stretches to 19.5 feet. “Americans, a lot of them are big, and they like big cars and long highways.”