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Computers Storm the Grid
Jessica Leber why this could reduce our
need for new coal or nuclear plants.
TR: How is the smart grid changing the
electric utility business?
Wellingho : Utilities are going to have to
change or die. Traditionally, their business
model has been vertically integrated; they
generate, distribute, and sell energy. Now,
you're seeing opportunities for utility cus-
tomers---commercial building owners, the
Walmarts and Safeways of the world---to
fully participate in energy markets and
go head to head with utilities. Ultimately,
you'll have companies helping homeown-
ers install technologies to facilitate their
participation. Because of this competition,
utilities will have to determine how they are
going to continue to make a profit.
A number of large utilities are starting to
understand that. Still, there are wide swaths
of the country where we don't have these
markets at all. Customers in those areas are
going to have to demand them.
Does a negawatt have a tangible value?
It absolutely is tangible. We issued an order
to say that a negawatt---or reducing a kilo-
watt of energy demand---is equal to ramping
up a kilowatt of energy production. Some-
one who creates a negawatt should be paid
for it. My mission personally has been to
integrate negawatts into the wholesale
energy market. If we can give the right mar-
ket signals, entrepreneurs will develop ways
to save energy in response to the grid's needs.
Do you have energy apps on your phone?
I have an app on my iPhone, from a company
called GreenNet, that allows me to monitor
things like my air-conditioning, dishwasher,
DVR, and sump pump. I use it all the time.
I'm also about to have installed the capability
to control them from my phone.
Will more people want to know what their
sump pump is up to?
Most people aren't going to be as much
of an energy geek as I am. I readily admit
The performance of computers has shown
remarkable and steady growth, doubling
every year and a half since the 1970s. What
most folks don't know, however, is that the
electrical e ciency of computing (the num-
ber of computations that can be completed
per kilowatt-hour of electricity used) has
also doubled every year and a half since the
dawn of the computer age.
Laptops and mobile phones owe their
existence to this trend, which has made
possible rapid reductions in the power
consumed by battery-powered computing
devices. The most important future e ect
is that the power needed to perform a task
requiring a fixed number of computations
will continue to fall by half every 1.5 years
(or a factor of 100 every decade). As a result,
even smaller and ultralow-power devices
will proliferate, vastly increasing our ability
to collect and use data in real time.
Consider the wireless no-battery sensors
created by Joshua R. Smith of the University
of Washington. These sensors harvest
The Computing Trend
that Will Change Everything
Computing isn't just getting cheaper. It's becoming more
energy efficient. That means a world of ubiquitous sensors
and streams of nanodata.
By JONATHAN KOOMEY
that. Some of the most compelling and con-
venient apps you're seeing now are Wi-Fi
thermostats you can control from any-
where; you can buy them at Home Depot.
Ultimately, to the extent that we can install
these types of control devices, residential
consumers will be able to volunteer their
information to third-party aggregators
who can help automatically manage their
How far can reducing consumption get
us to solving bigger energy problems?
It can get us a long way. Utility commission-
ers in Massachusetts recently told me they
are looking at potentially zero energy-load
growth, because they're using smart meters
and other devices and have very aggressive
energy e ciency programs. I think we're
seeing a dramatic shift in the whole energy
dynamic in the country. In the next five to
10 years, we'll have the ability to manage
our energy so that we need very few new
energy from stray television and radio sig-
nals and transmit data from a weather sta-
tion to an indoor display every five seconds.
They use so little power (50 microwatts, on
average) that they need no other source.
Harvesting background energy flows,
including ambient light, motion, or heat,
opens up the possibility of mobile sen-
sors operating indefinitely with no exter-
nal power source. Such sensors expand
the promise of what Erik Brynjolfsson, a
professor of management at MIT, calls
"nanodata," or customized fine-grained data
describing the characteristics of individuals,
transactions, and information flows.
How long can the trend continue? In
1985, the physicist Richard Feynman calcu-
lated that the energy e ciency of comput-
ers could improve over then-current levels
by a factor of at least a hundred billion, and
our data indicate that the e ciency of com-
puting devices progressed by only about a
factor of 40,000 from 1985 to 2009. We've
hardly begun to tap the full potential.
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