Monday, September 22, 2008

Hacking Electricity

One more quick thought from the Web 2.0 Expo.

Last Wednesday morning, I watched James Governor's presentation. The conference program called the talk Electricity as the New Internet. Turnout was weak. Apparently, people were more interested in Disruptions in the Music Industry and Web Analytics 2.0. Bummer, but Governor battled through. He asked everyone to get up and come down front. And he did his thing, and he did it well.

As I sat there in my second row seat after the talk was over and looked over my notes from the day so far, people swarmed him. They were excited and curious and wanting more.

And I was too. I had questions about the big picture.

Early in the talk, Governor quoted Google CEO Eric Schmidt:

I could imagine a smart garage where I would plug in my car and the computer handles it. I could even make money by cost shifting...It solves energy security, energy prices, and job creation...and, by the way, climate change.

A little later, he mentioned a Twitter account called @andy_house.

A guy named Andy hooked some meters and appliances up to Twitter, and his house now keeps the world updated on what's going on. When lights go on and off. How many kilowatt hours are reading on the meter. When there's suddenly unusually high electricity use. Etc.

And, throughout the talk, Governor kept reminding us of that wonderfully succinct little piece of William Gibson wisdom:

The future is already here; it's just unevenly distributed.

Governor wants to see people hack electricity. He wants us to cobble together existing technologies, layer them onto the old, inefficient systems, and build a new energy industry out of gadgets and plug-ins.

He sees the creaky grids. He smells the coal dust. He feels the warming. And he's worried.

But he thinks computer programmers and tinkerers can save the day. The hope and opportunity in the energy industry lie at the grass roots. They lie with the mechanic that works on his rooftop windmill instead of his car on the weekends. They lie with the web developer that writes a little application to flip all his power strips off before he goes to bed and then open sources it.

Governor says:

To paraphrase Michelle Obama, I'm finally proud to be in the IT industry.

And I wonder. I love his thoughts. I love his enthusiasm. I love his optimism. But how much, globally, will hacking the current system actually change?

Having spent a dangerously high percentage of my waking life in this Acorn Energy office over the past 7 months, I'm well steeped in energy efficiency propaganda. I was a believer before I watched James Governor present, before I thought about things from the hacker perspective. But I worry that efficiency is a developed world solution.

Yes, it's true that William Kamkwamba is hacking the wind in Malawi, but William's windmills don't power schools and hospitals or give people a home heating alternative to cut wood.

Large scale infrastructure projects do those things.

Efficiency helps. Hacks will become products, and grassroots tinkering will make plants and grids much more productive.

But I want abundance. I want cheap clean energy for everyone, everywhere. And there's more to that than hacking.

There are politics involved, storytelling, industrial scale professional engineering. I loved everything Governor said, but I will love it more next time if he takes a minute or two to situate it globally, if he acknowledges hacking's role as an integral (and often forgotten) component of a comprehensive solution to the world's energy problems.