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What's the next big application?

Posted: 04 Jan 2010 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:technology application? smart grid? touchscreen? OLED? MEMS?

Smart grid projects are sprouting up in China, India and Africa, where a major wind turbine deployment aims to serve Europe's needs.

Building smart grids
After years of debate, shovels went into the ground in 2009 to create standards and starter projects for upgrading today's aging power grid to a smart electric network. Veteran venture capitalist John Doerr said recently that an open, digital and networked grid "will be the last great network we build in our lifetimes."

"Today the Internet represents a $1 trillion economy, and there are some 1.2 billion people on the Net. But energy is a $6 trillion economy, 4 billion people use it, and there hasn't been innovation here, for a variety of reasons," said Doerr, a Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers partner, who helped fund Google and but now focuses on green technology. Doerr has invested in Silver Springs Networks, a smart meter maker that hopes to go public soon.

The smart grid will open the door to the broad use of solar, wind and other renewable energy sources while raising energy efficiency, former U.S. Vice President Al Gore said in a recent Silicon Valley talk.

The U.S. recently committed about $8 billion to smart grid projects, about half of that in federal economic stimulus grants. But that investment amounts to only about 5 percent what experts believe it will cost to upgrade the national network.

Smart grid projects are sprouting up in China, India and Africa, where a major wind turbine deployment aims to serve Europe's needs. "China expects to complete its supergrid by 2020 because they see it will give them an enormous competitive advantage," Gore told his Silicon Valley audience.

Plenty of regulatory, business and technical hurdles lie ahead. A hornet's nest of state and local agencies regulates utilities today. Legislation that would promote use of alternative energy sources and accelerate smart grids has been stymied in Congress.

Gore cautioned that "in order to act effectively [to address government policy issues around the smart grid], we have to straighten out the regulatory and state legal morass, and we have to put a price on carbon emissions. A federal initiative is absolutely necessary."

It's unclear how or when utilities, their regulators, vendors and consumers will come together to tackle the challenges. But engineers have already defined multiple paths to writing smart grid standards, including the smart grid Interoperability Panel, launched by a government agency, and a separate IEEE 2030 effort.

Such efforts will tackle dozens of nagging technology questions, including finding a low-cost way to plug home appliances into the grid. On a grander scale, planners must figure out how to connect solar and wind farms to the grid so that the energy they generate can be stored and accessed.

One other nagging problem: Government planners estimate there will be a shortfallmeasured in the thousandsof engineers and technicians with the skills to build and run tomorrow's digital power network.

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