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Lessons from the Internet May Help Solve Energy Crisis

Lessons from the Internet May Help Solve Energy CrisisIn the Engineering Dean's Lecture, Robert Metcalfe—the inventor of Ethernet—tied environmental solutions to internet innovations.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [03.04.10] According to Robert Metcalfe, the pressing global need for cheap and clean energy can be met by using concepts from the development of the Internet. On Feb. 26, Metcalfe spoke to a packed house as part of the Engineering Dean's Lecture series and shared his view on providing the world with what Metcalfe calls "squanderably abundant energy."

A self-proclaimed "Internet tycoon" and "energy crusader," Metcalfe is currently a venture capitalist with Polaris Venture Partners in Waltham, Mass., interested in investing in energy technologies. He is better known as the inventor of Ethernet, the local-area networking (LAN) standard. As a result of this work, "that's the only way I can see to solve energy," he says.

Metcalfe says he has a particular affinity for seeing the world through the lens of the Internet and its invention. "You can argue when the Internet was invented, but I like to go back to the invention of the transistor-1946. I was born in 1946, so we're the same age, roughly 63 years old."

In those 63 years, Metcalfe has seen and participated in the growth of the telecommunications industry and the expansion of networking technologies. "However, most of the traffic on the Internet never leaves the building," he said. The realization that Internet traffic would be dominated by LAN technology was one of the "surprises" in the development of the Internet, Metcalfe said. Similarly, "there'll be many surprises in energy," he said.

One of the major surprises in energy will be that there won't be the same kind of need for energy conservation in the future, Metcalfe said-a prediction that he says makes him "annoying" to many people. "I'm not saying that you shouldn't be conserving energy and you shouldn't be efficient with it. We'll be using it more efficiently but we'll be using a lot more of it."

Again, Metcalfe pointed to the Internet as a guide.

As the Internet developed, "the long hanging fruit was the conservation of bandwidth," he said. Establishing standards for file compression in the forms we know today, JPGs or MP3s, was paramount because "we had to squeeze all this information through these copper pipes," said Metcalfe. "We were fully convinced that the copper wiring built by the AT&T company, we were stuck with it. So we better be good at conservation and efficiency." Metcalfe then asked the audience whether we use more or less bandwidth than when the Internet was first being developed.

"We now use a million times more bandwidth than before we built the Internet," Metcalfe answered. "We're not going to be using less energy than we use today. We're going to be using much, much more." Abundant energy could open new avenues in personalized medicine, spaceflight, and improved access to clean water, said Metcalfe. Limitless energy would also level the playing field between developing and developed parts of the world, he said.

During his lecture, Metcalfe pointed to a familiar composite image of the world viewed at night from space, with prominent, industrialized nations such as the United States and China, glowing brightly from the light of major metropolises, and third-world nations in Africa, for example, as completely dark. "If people show you this picture, especially if you're an American, they want you to feel bad," said Metcalfe. He argued that the goal in rethinking the energy crisis shouldn't be to "darken the world" but to bring energy and light to every part of the world. "There ought to be lights shining here and here," he said pointing at dark areas of the map.

Metcalfe said that the research to produce these solutions to the energy crisis would take decades, but that "we have time for science." He also argued that the research money to create these solutions shouldn't be given to government labs or "entrenched monopolies" such as AT&T or IBM. "Those monopolies get their money by overcharging their customers, and they are the players least motivated to bring innovations to market," he said. Research should instead be conducted at universities such as Tufts, Metcalfe said, "because they graduate students and students are the most effective vehicles for innovation."

"If the internet teaches us something, it's that fiercely competing teams of research professors, scaling entrepreneurs and venture capitalists are the best way for getting energy solved," he said.

Story by Julia C. Keller, Communications Manager, School of Engineering 

 

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