Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Dow Jones, GreenBeat, ... and the final frontier!

I spent last week in Silicon Valley (where I lived for six years in the 90's), and spoke at a couple of conferences: Dow Jones and GreenBeat. But of course I was mainly there to listen, and I was seeking answers to:
1) Has the US woken-up to climate change?
2) Does the consumer really matter in the US?
...and it was exciting to see that the answer to both questions is an emphatic "yes!"

The likes of Intel and Cisco, and indeed the venture-capital community which created the Silicon Valley phenomenon, are now very strongly focussed on Energy, and see in it an opportunity on the same scale as the internet boom. Veteran investors John Doerr and Vinod Khosla both gave passionate speeches (as did Al Gore). When you look at the amount of money we pay for Energy (far more than any other household service) and the extremely primitive way it is managed, it's not surprising that people are viewing it as a big opportunity. Now I do recognise that Silicon Valley is not America, but it does create much of the future for America. So while I suspect that a lot of people outside of the West and East Coast still remain to understand the profound effects that climate change, energy security and peak oil (and our reactions to adapt) are about to have on their lives, it's great to see that in places like Silicon Valley it is now a hot topic.

And does the consumer matter? As a totally consumer-centric company this question is very important to AlertMe. We know that the consumer does matter in countries like the UK which have a deregulated energy industry, because utilities have to compete for the consumer's business, so they need to compete not just on pricing, but on the quality of the consumer experience, in order to attract and retain customers.
That's not the case in the majority of US states, where utilities are still regulated, meaning that the consumer has no choice of supplier, and everything from rates to services is determined by legislation in the form of the all-powerful PUC (Public Utilities Commissioner). Sounds a bit 1950's, doesn't it - and indeed it is. And so are some of the plans for energy management which sound almost Soviet - for example, Demand Response, where a utility can pull a lever to turn off appliances in your home when there is insufficient supply. This might sound great from a utility perspective, but it's going to be a hard sell to consumers. So I was delighted to see that many of the various panels and discussions did focus on the consumer, the conclusion being that if the consumer - and their in-home devices - aren't engaged in the process by offering them services which are positively attractive to them, then there's a real danger that industry initiatives such as Smart Meters won't achieve anything like the scale of change that is needed.

Speaking of scale, that's something that Ed Lu of Google mentioned a lot in his talk (he mentions AlertMe at around 8 minutes in). Scalability of information is something that telco's and companies like Google understand very well, but utilities now have to play catch-up, moving from a world where historically they took at most one reading a month per consumer, to one where real-time energy information (and control) flows in real-time. Personally I believe that the AMI networks that have been built today, and are still being planned and rolled-out, designed primarily around carrying 15-minute metering data, will be completely inadequate to carry us into our energy future. We already have an effective real-time information network (it's called the Internet) so let's use it!

Having done a press-release with Ed a few weeks back it was great to actually meet him and spend some time with him discussing what we're doing with Google Powermeter. Ed is an astronaut who's been into space three times, spent a lot of time on the ISS, and indeed rode the first Shuttle after the Columbia disaster - so a brave man and a thoroughly nice one too. So (cheesy though it was to ask) I just couldn't resist getting a picture taken to show my children "Daddy with the Astronaut"! Which kind of made my day.