Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Solar Energy's Future: "Off-Grid" Leapfrogging Applications

The trick for solar energy is to not get stuck in just the old energy ecosystem known as the ‘power grid’ where, with lots government funding and prescriptive policies, solar energy is projected to supply between one and four percent of US electricity by the year 2030. Solar energy could, instead, come into its own by supplying the fast-growing electricity demands of off-grid energy ecosystems consisting of the widely distributed demand footprint of mobile humans

Conventional thinking on solar energy has always said “find a way to connect it to the power grid.” There are many reasons behind this thinking:
· Solar is considered a clean resource, while fossil fuels are not, because sunlight can produce electricity without emitting greenhouse gasses and air pollutants
· Sunlight bathes us in far more energy than we need or can use. Energy from sunlight is virtually unlimited when we compare the total power needs of humans (16 trillion watts today, growing to 20 trillion watts by 2020) with the 120,000 trillion watts that the sun deposits on Earth’s landmass. In fact, it is projected that with our existing photovoltaic (PV) technology, a square array of PV cells 160 kilometers (100 miles) on each side would, when placed in the Southwest dessert (that receives an average of 6 kilowatt-hours of solar energy per square meter per day) be sufficient to meet ALL current US demand. One proposal estimates that a facility costing around $400 billion could deliver two-thirds of US electricity demand

Solar, without government intervention, is the most expensive source of electric power except in a few countries where electric rates are high. In the US, because solar costs several times more than natural gas and oil, solar currently supplies less than one percent of US electricity needs.

Also, the sun does not always shine or shine so bright. Thus the rate at which sunlight produces electricity is for the most part unpredictable and can vary over time. Incorporating substantially more fluctuating energy sources into the power grid require designing a new system (and specialized controls) that successfully integrates variable loads (renewable energy) and more predictable loads (fossil fuels).

Sunlight falls everywhere on Earth and only differs in intensity in different places and at different times of a day. This feature, the ability to blanket the Earth, is the defining attribute of solar energy and is the attribute to focus on to develop Solar as an energy source.

Energy demands of the devices we carry and the transports that carry us, increasingly require an electricity-supply system to support a broadly dispersed energy demand footprint. Sunlight has the potential to satisfy this new energy demand footprint in much the same manner that wireless communications satisfy the content demand footprint that is increasingly enveloping the whole world. A few representative off-grid developments include:
· The SOLAR IMPULSE Project (
http://www.solarimpulse.com/) – Aims to develop a solar-powered airplane that weighs no more than an average car and will circumnavigate the globe in 2012.
· The PLANET SOLAR Project (
http://www.planetsolar.org) – The goal is to navigate around the world at an average speed of 7.5 knots in a solar-powered boat .
· The Portable Light Project (
http://portablelight.org/) is bringing flexible photovoltaics into fabricated products that can be integrated into blankets, handbags, or other useful items to provide a small amount of energy to charge a cell phone or provide lighting for rural villagers without access to power grids
· Cooking with Sunlight (
www.solarcookers.org) reduces air pollution and frees women and children from the burdens of gathering firewood and carrying it for miles.

Supporting a broadly dispersed energy demand footprint is the ‘off-grid’ application that can bring solar power into its own niche without government intervention. Initially, this “off-grid” solar niche may not be as large or lucrative as the potential for an on-grid connection. Oftentimes it is better to have a grape all to yourself rather than have a tiny piece of a watermelon.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

US Energy trends

World Price of Energy is likely to stay at present levels as global demand remains high but shifts from the developed West to the developing East. Continued high anxiety with fossil fuels and carbon issues could reduce “cost” disadvantage of solar, wind and biofuels which are relatively more expensive, less reliable but favorably viewed

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The 21st Century Air Raid Shelter is a Neighborhood Park!

Haiti and before it Katrina, Pakistan, Italy, Indonesia and other locations of natural disasters provide disaster relief organizations with the same lesson: Have the populace know IN ADVANCE, WHERE help will be available in their neighborhood in the event of ANY disaster. This should be the priority of disaster preparedness teams in every country of the world regardless of how rich or poor a country is, the stability and political will of its government, the frequency and scope of its emergency preparedness drills or the food, water and medicine that individuals have stockpiled in their homes.

I live in a suburb of Los Angeles and am keenly aware of the San Andreas Fault and its real possibility of causing Haiti’s level of devastation to infrastructure and lives. Yes, I take solace in the fact that my rich and resourceful country would be able to provide help quickly, like or better than that in Italy. And, just in case, I have stockpiled food and water for a few weeks. But, what if the devastation is of the level of that in Haiti and I cannot get to my supplies? How can I be fed and housed in my back yard? How can each of the injured get medical treatment where they fall? How can relief supplies get to the many when the many clog the streets?

Today’s equivalent of the Air Raid shelter is an open space possibly the neighborhood park. Food supplies can be air-dropped here, people may build emergency shelter in pre-designated areas here, a field medical hospital can also be set-up in such a space.

Simply speaking, the public needs to know, in advance, where help will be found, in every city and country of the world. National and global response everywhere to a disaster event can be more widespread, efficient and effective, if the impacted people are in a smaller number of locations.

The priority activity for global and national government is to designate these “21st Century Shelters” and make every citizen of the world aware of their existence. The average person can be counted upon to find a way to get to the 21st Century Shelter but only if she/he knows where to go, much before disaster strikes.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Social Media, fuel for Advertising ROI?

The premise underlying advertising has changed. The historical tactic “tell many to influence behavior of the few” is being replaced by “tell few to influence behavior of the many.” Unfortunately, however, neither the historical leaders of traditional media advertising, nor the emerging leaders of New Media advertising, have had much success in applying the latter tactic. The key for both may lie in digital Social Media.

Traditional advertisers know, all too well, that most ad campaigns fail. David Ogilvy is reported to have said “Ninety-nine percent of advertising doesn’t sell much of anything.” In the same vein, John Wanamaker, the department store genius, is quoted as saying “Fifty percent of advertising is wasted …just don't know which 50 percent.”

The same dismal ROI exists in New Media. It is still a game of “search” and not one of “find.”

The similarity between traditional media advertising and new media advertising are hidden by the technologies that fuel both media. Traditional media relies on finding out what I have done like my recent purchase of a car. This fact provides advertisers clues to what other products and services I might be influenced to spend my money on. In new media, the email that I send to my friends on my recent car purchase is read by a computer. The computer then prompts delivery of digital ads of products and services I might be influenced to spend my money on. The economics are different, but the results have the same dismal ROI.

Enter Social Media. Those of us on social media sites are slowing getting comfortable publicly revealing more intimate details about ourselves and others than we have ever done so to the whole world. Personal details we share on our Facebook© (www.facebook.com) wall, the tweet (www.twitter.com) we text and the like-minded we collect and empathize with (e.g. music enthusiasts on www.myspace.com) are providing the ‘local and personal’ knowledge that Morris Hite referred to when he said, “There is no such thing as national advertising. All advertising is local and personal. ”

The Coca Cola© page on Facebook© is one attempt at implementing the latter tactic. It works if I self-qualify myself by showing that I am an avid member of the Coca Cola enthusiasts club that the page represents. But how will Coca Cola get me to buy something and buy more frequently? How do the one-on-one eye-to-eye sales successes of the traditional world manifest in my digital relationship with Coca Cola? Will either the traditional behemoths of Madison Avenue or the recent upstarts of Digital Search figure this out? Or is advertising’s ROI growth dependent on yet another outsider showing everyone the way?

Friday, August 22, 2008

Technology Monetization Nightmare - The Splinter Effect

Some people make very interesting choices. Take John Malone’s recent statement, as reported in The Financial Times Newspaper (FT.com) to swap Liberty Media’s $1.6 Billion ownership in Time Warner for AOL’s dial-up business that is valued at $1.5 Billion. The article also pointedly reminds us that the dial-up business is a declining Internet access operation. This choice may not be a bad one except surely for high-bandwidth technology vendors and content suppliers.

The choice may be the right one for Liberty Media if it knows what it is paying for in AOL’s dial-up business. It is, of course, possible that Liberty is buying AOL’s dial-up business for some inherent technology that has more profitable uses in addition to serving dial-up access users. However, it is more likely that dial-up users are the ideal target for other products and services from Liberty Media and dial-up is the right channel to get before them as they are less likely to, for example, be twittering (twitter.com) when Liberty calls. As technology has enabled more and more communication channels, it has become increasingly likely that a company and its customers are on different channels (the splintering effect) and Liberty Media’s swap is just a way to implement the old rule of marketing and sales that requires every company to “Be on the same communication channel as its customers.”

Another interesting choice is the New York Times (NYTimes.com) newspaper’s partnering with LinkedIn (Linkedin.com), the online professional network. As reported in BtoB (btobonline.com), this partnership is designed to reveal additional stories to users of the Times’ website based upon information in their LinkedIn profiles.

The hope is that the Times will use LinkedIn profiles to lengthen user visits and for monetization through targeted ads that can be shown during the lengthened user visits to the site. This monetization strategy could work if users agree to self-identify themselves via their LinkedIn profiles and the Times can charge advertisers a premium for targeted ads shown to these users. This choice may be the right one especially if the target customers are the younger consumers who get more news online and who also are primary users of LinkedIn.

Not minimizing execution issues, Liberty Media and The New York Times can meet their business goals through technology if the technology they adopt is known (to them) to be suitable for their business. If not, they may feel like Jeremy’s mom or even Jeremy in the Zits cartoon strip that ran in the Los Angeles Times (LATimes.com) newspaper on 16 August 2008:

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Grand Theft:Technology’s Purpose

“This will finally force us to drive less, reduce demand and use more public transit” remarked a dear friend of mine. He was reacting to my statement that I had just paid $89 to fill-up my SAV. Everyone present who had worked in the oil, gas and energy industries quickly agreed with his opinion, while a few others expressed concern for the negative impact this high cost would have on many lives.

What’s most interesting, however, is that there was no need for any further discussion from those who saw the price increase as just another example of the demand-vs-supply principle in action while others felt the need to discuss this further mainly because lives of real people were being impacted. Soon the two groups were separately discussing solutions to the high cost of a gallon of gas but they had one thing in common. They all agreed that ‘technology’ was a big part of the solution while still disagreeing on what the end goal or purpose should be.

As I left the gathering, I happened to glance at the cars in the parking lot and noticed a hybrid owned by a supporter of the supply-vs-demand trade off and realized that the righteous debate could be bridged by focusing on technologies that made cars use gas more efficiently. This increase in efficiency would reduce both the demand and the effective cost per gallon. I have to remember to bring this up when we get together next.

This way of thinking about technology’s purpose appears to be universal. My model for it has become the coins we use as money. The ‘head’ and the ‘tail’ look in opposite directions but are held together by the edge with ridges (also know as reeds). Here is some of my thinking on how to focus technology on a purpose that solves a current problem:

  • To reduce the price of a gallon of gas, let’s make gasoline usage more efficient through better engines, roads, tires etc
  • To encourage the Myanmar government to be less insular, let’s find a way for the Burmese people to access the Internet from the legacy cell phones already in their possession
  • To ease the global food crisis, let’s push for local agricultural self-sufficiency through fertilizer technology

What purpose do you recommend for technology?

Monday, April 14, 2008

Personal Cultural Identity Drives Technology Reach

You would be right in naming your native city or any city in the world in response to my question “Can you tell me where the following scenes are unfolding: a jogger with the white tell-tale wires hanging from her ears; a suit leaning over a laptop in an airport lounge; a harried businessman talking loudly on a cell phone while pacing outside a downtown skyscraper; a user thumbing the blackberry keypad while waiting to enter a theater; a family laughing loudly watching a show on TV?” You are right because personal technologies do penetrate societies and cultures like nothing else can.

You would also be right in your answers to the follow-up questions: “What music is she listening to; what language are they speaking; what clothes are they wearing; what’s the color of their skin, how unrestrained are their emotional expressions?” You are right because these personal technologies have penetrated different societies and cultures while reinforcing the differences in identity of the world’s people.

This push for identity is even seen when technology seems to force language conformance and cultural similarity. An example is the widespread use of the ubiquitous QWERTY English language keyboard in favor of local language keyboards. The solution that individuals have devised is to use phonetics of the English language to sound the words of their preferred tongue in written communications like emails and scripts. The cultural acronyms and emoticons (for laughter, sarcasm and astonishment) so beloved by inhabitants of the net and phone messaging worlds are only the latest example of this preference for identity.

It’s easier for purveyors of consumer products like Apple, Adidas, Intel and Toyota to navigate on the merits of their technology offering alone. It’s quite a different endeavor for content owners like Disney and Sony who must choose what, if any, and how much cultural localization and reflection their technology offerings will contain and then arrange the rest of their enterprise to capitalize from these technologies.