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What new technologies have the most promise?

MCCREA: A lot of companies are looking at ensuring their own power supplies by considering building their own generating capacity and bypassing the regional power grid. In the past, CIOs didn't really have to worry about this. But today, energy and pricing is a matter of information—and now they do.

HANDFIELD: I believe smart metering is a very practical application that I think we're going to see a lot of in the future, whereby the electricity meters attached to a house or a building can be read virtually, via sensors that are placed on trucks that literally drive by and check them. I think one important aspect of upgrading the grid and tying it to the Net will be modernizing measurement of power consumption.

GARDINER: I think all vendors, ourselves included, need to focus on the kinds of intelligence built into the devices that allow them to manage the use of power as wisely as is possible, given the device's position in the architecture. It's a different issue for a network device than it is for an end-user's laptop or a PC. But all of them can be equipped with enough intelligence to understand how to make power consumption decisions based on the work that they're doing at a moment in time. We are deploying devices that are very power smart at the user end, which is the most ubiquitous piece of technology that we have, and we're teaching our employees how to use that power management capability to reduce our costs. And I think all vendors need to be focused on putting those kinds of products in the marketplace.

ANDERSON: I'm afraid I'm a little more pessimistic. The technology's not the issue. This energy crisis is a gigantic systems integration problem without a leader. And if you look at the three main networks in the world, there's the phone system, there's the Internet, and there's the electricity grid. Now, the phone system was built by AT&T Corp. with the government saying, "Go, take a monopoly and run the phone system," and they successfully got phones cheaply everywhere. That has since bifurcated into all kinds of activity. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the military, did the Internet. Nobody's doing the electricity grid. Who's going to run this show?

I'd like to ask people like Steve Gehl where he thinks the leadership is going to come from for that to happen? Who's going to pay the bill? Is it going to be the Pentagon when they finally get scared that this is a threat to our survival, or is it going to have to be the companies all banding together and saying we're going to overcome? The problem is the public has little knowledge of how the electricity system works and therefore cannot assert political pressure. Most of my students at Columbia don't know how their hair dryers work, let alone what comes out of the electric plug. So the general public hasn't a clue what's going on here.

Who should take leadership?

ANDERSON: It's going to take somebody like DARPA getting engaged. The military was responsible for the interstate highway system.

GEHL: Well, I think I agree with the comment that we do need to have someone in charge. Now whether that comes from the military or not, I don't know. I think it clearly has got to involve the federal government, and right now, I would hope it would be aided by voluntary organizations. For example, you have the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and the North American Electric Reliability Council…

ANDERSON: You're going to let them run it?

GEHL: No, but I think they're going to have to be involved. But we are going to be hobbled to a degree by having locked in on an older technology base, and I think what we need to do is to come up with an overall approach for modernizing the system and recognizing that the new technology is going to have to have a substantial advantage over the existing technology. One of the other problems is that the time constant seems to be a lot larger in the electricity business than it is in the Internet or computer business. The electricity business tends to go through technology cycles at a slower rate, principally because the capital costs are so much higher. You build a power plant with the expectation that it's going to be around for 30 years, and if you do that, then you're sort of stuck with the performance limitations of what some day will be a 30-year-old technology, the environmental limitations of that technology, and so forth.

This article was originally published on 07-01-2001
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