What do stirrups, steam engines, the telegraph, railroads, the U.S. Postal Service and the Internet have in common? Each spans entire continents, connects people, and has achieved commercial success through government investment.
Connectivity was in evidence in November at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory's Industry Growth Forum, which highlighted emerging products and solutions in alternative, renewable and sustainable energies. Now in its 22nd year, the Denver event has grown from a small conference emphasizing wind and solar technologies to a world-renowned event attracting hundreds of entrepreneurs, investors and public policy makers.
Paul Brubaker, senior director of Cisco Systems Internet Solutions, noted the role information technology is playing in the development of new alternative-energy markets.
"As climate change and the need for alternative energy sources accelerate on a global basis, we are witnessing the inflection of information technology to spur alternative solutions into the commercial market place," Brubaker said. "We also anticipate IT will provide the underlying framework to support the energy-aware consumer."
More than 30 alternative-energy solutions providers competed for the top prize of investment and professional guidance from NREL and Deutsche Bank Climate Change Advisors to bring their product or service to market. Competitors represented a wide range of alternative-energy issues, including carbon capture and sequestration, solar photovoltaic, energy storage, lighting and insulation.
"What really makes a successful economic transformation is innovative, effective business models and business managers," said Bruce Kahn, director and senior investment analyst at Deutsche Bank Climate Change Advisors.
Information technology has become integral to most aspects of the alternative-energy solutions market. One reason is its role in enabling users to evaluate in real time the current environment - such as a room within a building or an entire city.
ON A FUNDAMENTAL LEVEL
Information technology enables scientists and others to readily see climate change on a global basis across a wide spectrum of measures, including particulates in the air, changes in temperatures on land and sea, expansion and contraction of glaciers and ice caps, and other climate-impacting measures. This allows for accurate assessments of our energy consumption and its environmental impact.
ON A COMMUNITY LEVEL
The smart grid city is an example of IT embedded in an energy-saving system at the community level. Consider: The smart grid city takes advantage of remote IT monitoring and management capabilities to control individual home power consumption; the utility company continually assesses its power output requirements. If the utility determines it will need more power output at a specific time, such as in the evening when citizens are arriving home and turning on air conditioners, it can intelligently control the power flows by throttling different sectors in the community such as office buildings during off-hours.
Another component of the smart grid is the consumer's ability to control a home's power requirements from a remote location using the Internet. If a consumer knows he will be arriving home at a different time, he can delay turning up the heat or the air conditioner to reduce his overall utility bill. The smart grid takes the idea of static timers and adds intelligence and manageability to the entire home.
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
One point driven home at the forum is that information technology and alternative energy solutions have significant opportunities to grow together. Examples at the event included technology-enabled cars with sensitivity to speed and surroundings to avoid collisions.
Kahn, of the Deutsche Bank, credited IT for some of the increased opportunities for innovators.
"Entrepreneurs are much more nimble, can do a lot more with a lot less capital, and are innovating around government policies and incentive structures more so than what happened in the late '90s," Kahn said.
"What is different, however, is that the clean energy revolution is more about infrastructure, deployment of large, capital-intensive industries and transforming our power, water and agriculture infrastructures. That is markedly different than the IT revolution that was about revolutionizing technology. This is about deployment of alternatives to existing technology."