In search of the energy Internet

"The Enernet." When I heard that term last week, at the U.S. Energy Department’s Energy Innovation Summit, I harkened back to about 1993, when something called "the Internet" first entered my consciousness. At the time, it sounded geeky and abstract and wholly unrelated to my life and work.

Given how the whole Internet thing turned out, I decided to take the notion of an Enernet — an energy Internet — more seriously.

The idea of a smart, networked electricity grid has been talked about for several years. I found a 2004 article on the topic from The Economist that described turning “today's dumb electricity grid” into “a smart, responsive and self-healing digital network.” I’m certain this wasn’t the first article on the topic.

I have been talking about something similar since 2008, when I first integrated the idea of a convergence of energy, information, building, and transportation technologies into my keynote presentations. That idea we now call VERGE, and has become a center of activity for my company (including next week’s VERGE DC event). Still, I hadn’t heard of the Enernet before, though I’ve come to learn that the term dates back almost as long as my talking about “convergence.” Here’s a 2009 C-NET article that references the term.

Last week’s Energy Innovation Summit was produced by ARPA-e (for Advanced Research Projects Agency - Energy), created by President Bush in 2007 but funded by President Obama in 2009. It was modeled after the Defense Department’s highly successful DARPA, created a half-century earlier to maintain the technological superiority of the U.S. military. DARPA has been credited with birthing a wide range of critical technologies, many of which have migrated to civilian use — the Internet as well as high-frequency radar, high-energy lasers, cloud computing, jet engines, virtual reality, and GPS, among other innovations. (Google’s autonomous vehicle and Apple’s iPhone Siri speech recognition technology are both children of DARPA.)

At EIS12, as last week’s event was referred to in shorthand, nearly 2,500 people assembled outside Washington, DC, to hear from the likes of Bill Clinton, Microsoft’s Bill Gates, Fedex founder and CEO Fred Smith, ex-Walmart CEO Lee Scott, Xerox CEO Urusula Burns, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, MIT President Susan Hockfield, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, various DOE officials, and more Members of Congress than you shake a gavel at. It was, at times, a bit of a cheerleading session for increasingly maligned federal funding of advanced energy technologies, a necessity in an era of the politicization of solar and other renewables. At other times, the summit was an energy geekfest.

It was the latter — in particular, the Enernet — that most captivated my interest.

In a session on “Future Grid,” a group of speakers addressed how to integrate into the electricity grid millions of “prosumers” — buildings, power plants, and other entities that both produce and consume electricity — along with billions of smart devices, from cars to computers to light switches to ATMs. Doing this reliably, economically, and sustainably — not to mention instantaneously — is shaping up to be a Herculean effort. The goal is to create an Internet-like distributed electricity system where anyone, from large utilities to individual consumers, can literally plug in and play: the Enernet.

Suffice to say, the Enernet is a radical change from how electricity has been delivered for the past 100 years. And that system — centrally generated in large power plants, delivered to customers via electromechanical devices — has worked fairly well, the occasional blackout notwithstanding. As everything becomes decentralized and digitized, things should get even more efficient and reliable — at least in theory. In reality, it's an open question.