Thinking Tech

Who will pay for the Enernet?

Who will pay for the Enernet?

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Rather than just delivering more energy to the same wasteful grid, in many of the same old ways, someone needs to create the market incentives entrepreneurs like Metcalfe need to turn their dreams into reality. Someone needs to fund the Enernet.

The key to getting mass participation in our energy future is what Ethernet inventor Bob Metcalfe (right) now calls the "Enernet," a smart grid that, like the Internet, supports uploading, downloading and storage of energy rather than bits.

Metcalfe wants to take the lessons of the Internet -- a layered architecture, global standards, mass storage -- and apply them to the energy market.

Getting from here to there is a huge undertaking. When utilities talk of a "smart grid," they are mainly thinking of reading meters remotely and monitoring energy flows.

An Enernet is something different. It would provide a means to buy energy from anyone, even consumers. It would have a way to store that energy for later use. It would be as robust and flexible as the data Internet.

Today's grid is a simple set of cables designed to do simple things. Power plants produce the energy, power lines sell it, and utility companies "manage the load." This means they make certain supply is meeting demand.

When there is too much supply plants are taken offline, starting with those whose energy costs the most. So many wind farms can't even sell the energy they are making now. It costs more per kilowatt than coal, so utilities disconnect it when demand is low.

Any new transmission line, like the one proposed recently by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, would face the same problem. Plus the facrt that, given the limited conductivity of steel, you lose half the power in such a transmission line on the way to market.

So the biggest engineering problem for the Enernet involves storing excess energy and delivering it for later use. The simplest way to do this is with hydrogen.

Anyone who has taken high school chemistry knows you produce hydrogen using hydrolysis. Electricity splits water into its constituent gases, hydrogen and oxygen. Save the hydrogen and vent the oxygen. An Enernet would take excess power from its grid to produce hydrogen.

You reverse the process in a fuel cell. Hydrogen goes in, combines with oxygen, creating electricity and water. It's already clean and quiet enough to go into residential areas as a form of back-up power. Switching the power supply from natural gas to hydrogen is easy enough.

Getting from theory to practice is another thing. There is energy lost in the hydrogen cycle. There are the problems of storing and moving the hydrogen to where it is needed.

An Enernet must be able to offload excess power into this or some other storage system, and buy power from any source, even your home windmill or solar panel set-up.

These are all questions the Enernet can solve, if it can get past the one I started with, who will pay for it.

Utilities are unaccustomed to real risk. They want guarantees of a market, and guarantees they can get their money out, before they consider listening to someone like Metcalfe talk about standards and protocols.

That's where the President's energy plans come in. Rather than just delivering more energy to the same wasteful grid, in many of the same old ways, someone needs to create the market incentives entrepreneurs like Metcalfe need to turn their dreams into reality.

Someone needs to fund the Enernet.

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Dana Blankenhorn

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Dana Blankenhorn has written for the Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age's "NetMarketing" supplement and founded the Interactive Age Daily for CMP Media. He holds degrees from Rice and Northwestern universities. He is based in Atlanta. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure