IBM’s Meyerson Talks Energy Innovation Predictions

Posted on January 17th, 2012 by

IBM’s Dr. Bernie Meyerson discusses potential innovations that could transform how people consume energy over the next 5 years.

Full Transcript:

Ben lack: What types of innovations is IBM predicting that we will see within the next 5 years.
Bernie Meyerson: These are global predictions as to what will happen so let me be very clear on that. What we’re looking at is what will you actually see evolve so as an example, in the case of energy, very specifically, we basically said that people power will mature and become a reality. Now, it’s a cute way of saying, you know, something that has actually considerable depth, shall we say. People power really refers to an effect at many levels. Let me back up for a minute. First of all, there’s a tremendous amount of energy that you simply use in a given day just by walking around, by various actions, take an elevator down as opposed to up, you can either recover the energy electronically or break the passage of that elevator by burning it off as heat which is a waste. What’s happening overtime and you’re beginning to see it now and you’ll see it much more pervasively is the society itself is already adapting to the capture of as much of that stray energy as possible as opposed to just burning it off. So, that’s one of the more interesting developments that we see becoming quite pervasive. We talk about it as several levels so let me take it to the most basic level and go up from there.At the most basic level, there are people who point out that, we have an extensive talk on our background material, about the fact that you can do energy capture from simple human motion. Literally speaking, you could put a piezoelectric device in the heel of your shoe and every time you walk, there’s a small amount of power generated simply as you impact where the piezo will absorb some of that pressure that you put on the heel of your shoe and turn it into electrical energy. The interesting thing is that, human-based energy is in the watts, you know, couple of watts to 10s of watts level. Human-based activity, simple stuff or micro-turbines in a gravity feed water system as an example, they’re not going to generate kilowatts that would power a home necessarily in Upper Westchester with a bunch of big, where I live, with a couple of air conditioning units, but that’s not really the point. People forget that this is a very big world and there are  lots of places in this world where you don’t have electrical connectivity. In fact, there are actually businesses in the rural areas of India where people actually tow in a big collection of fully charged 12 volt batteries and then people from the village can actually pay this person a small fee to charge their cell phone. There literally are places out there where human power actually could be quite compelling, if you come up with a relatively inexpensive way to capture it.

The interesting thing is yes, at the very simple level, not thinking necessarily mature society but rather in places where in fact, you’re rolling out communication faster, frankly, than electrification. In that place, it becomes very interesting to see what you can capture from just the general ambient. Literally, your ambient motion, the ambient heat you’ve got, water flow, etc.  So, that’s the kind of area where people will become very involved in providing the energy for their life and this is again, not at the level of kilowatts, we’re very well aware of that.

Ben Lack: Why is the assessment or the prospective that this actually is going to start to take some shape over the next five years. Why are we currently at a place now to where we can have this discussion?
Bernie Meyerson: It’s coupled to a second effect in part, that we talked about which is there will be about an 80% coverage of the world’s population with cell phones and those are not really cell phones but rather they’re instruments that are actually attached to the IP, to the network. So, with that level of demand, you really are going to have to come up with some solution whether it’s simply photovoltaics you have deployed, but some way to actually be inclusive of the rural areas that would actually benefit most from some connectivity as you try to eliminate the digital divide. So that’s one, the demand statement.The second one is an enablement statement which is micro-mechanics are becoming unbelievably pervasive and very inexpensive. Unbelievably sophisticated micro-mechanical devices that could be used for the purpose of generation have really taken the lead because if you think about it, with a requirement as a simple example, that you have a basically stability control for instance, virtually all vehicles, that by itself pushes the mass manufacture of very low-cost micro-mechanic systems, but those are the same kind of systems that can be used for this kind of power accumulation.

So, you have both a demand statement on the business side as well as a technology one. Moving past that, there’s a much bigger thought here which is what we meant by people power basically becoming a reality is you will become intimately engaged in the smarter planet network or power supply, a smart grid will in fact pull you in. The smart grid as an example, what I mean by that is it’s completely conceivable that five years from now, you’ll have some sort of plug-in, hybrid or a straight electric vehicle whether it’s a Chevy Volt, the new plug-in Prius that’s coming from Toyota or the Nissan Leaf, or any of the car companies are now introducing these myriad ones. It is quite conceivable that you’ll have an app on your cell phone, whether it’s an Android or an iPhone doesn’t matter and what will happen is, it will suddenly ping you and say, “Hey, we’re spinning up this 10 megawatt generator because we have to do maintenance on the bearings but you’ve got to test it.” During the spin-up, we actually haven’t got it pegged to do power production because we’re spinning it up at a maintenance cycle, so if you want to charge your car, we can off-load the power to you. We’ll give you a 2 cent/kilowatthour break if you just decide to charge it during the time we ask you to, so we have a load out there that absorbs this. So, all of a sudden you have an active brokerage on power right at the human level.

Similarly, it’s already happening in New York where one of the local companies, I believe it’s Con Edison or NYSEG, I don’t remember which but it’s one of the two, will send you at essentially no cost a thermostat that’s incredibly intelligent that will learn from your own actions as to whether or not to turn temperature up and down in the house, when it should do that just by basically following what you normally do. But, what’s more impressive is, it also has a capability as a quid pro quo from them having supplied it for free, to for instance, during a time of extreme duress on the electrical system during the summer, to turn up the temperature which you’re keeping your air conditioning slightly, thereby mitigating the load on the systems or during the winter if you have electric heat, turning down the temperature a couple of degrees to buy them a little more overhead in terms of reducing the load on the network and this is all now involving the consumer. This is really down at the level of the individual user and we’ve never had power at that level before. It’s never really been a personal issue.

Ben Lack: I guess that the challenge is does the user really care? I mean, there’s obviously lots of opportunities for users to already be responsible about energy use from consumption or generation standpoint and there’s definitely lots of room for improvement in that area now. I guess my question to you is based on this concept, it was probably given that the early adopters are going to be participating in many projects like this but do you see that the mass market are really to get their arms around and be ok with or introduce it to their lifestyle in 5 years?
Bernie Meyerson: Actually, oddly enough, yes. The reason is it becomes invisible. I mean, let’s be honest, right. People really are comfortable being web connected universally today. They’re comfortable with location data. Why? It became invisible. You have a cell phone, you have a Smartphone, you have whatever, an iPad. It has GPS capability and by definition, it now knows where you’re located and you just take for granted and use the location base, so nobody hesitates to click on the talk button of their phone and say, “Starbucks” and it will give you a map of the nearest five Starbucks and tell you how to walk, drive or take transport there. That kind of thing became so invisible but it’s now taken as a given and broadly adopted. In the case of power because of the extraordinary demands on our systems, you’re starting to see people try to make it invisible; you have the new thermostat that came out related to Apple. Where again, it just learns directly from your activities.You haven’t got to be a rocket scientist to program it to some extent, not to some to a complete extent, it programs itself. You have these systems now from the actual vendors. The power company itself will put it in and basically automate it for you. Because it’s becoming invisible people are integrating their activities to it and if you look at the early adopters, folks who buy cars that are essentially reliant upon electrical energy to the majority, the same sort of things starts to happen. As soon as you get your bill, and now, you’ve transferred a good literally 90-100% of your gasoline bill to an electrical vehicle even though it’s a smaller bill, it is a bill. If somebody offers you the opportunity to simply query you and say, “Can I charge now?” and you say, “Yeah, sure”, but you’ll automate it and it will become invisible and very quickly that invisible feature where you can just simply push the button that says “charge on demand” or “charge collaboratively” so to speak. All those capabilities as they come online will just let people adopt them mostly because they’re easy. If there’s a barrier, you’re absolutely correct, you have to do something different to get people to buy in.
Ben Lack: Based on your prospective and experience. What obstacles are currently out there that will hinder the success of this kind of of theory? Also, how can we get there faster?
Bernie Meyerson: In the obscure case of magic, just as an example, where for whatever reason, somebody discovered for instance, a source of clean sulphur-free oil a hundred times the existing supply, so the price of oil were to collapse. With it the price of energy, well that obviously would preclude people from worrying about it, but that’s not going to happen. That’s just the far extreme case. The other extreme case of course, is some extraordinary event that cause the price of energy to rise rapidly where of course that would drive people to very quickly go into this. From a technical point of view however which is key, from the enablement point of view, unless you found yourself in a position where you lost your connectivity, in other words where you couldn’t essentially use the web to drive this, this is going to happen for the simple reason that the web is being made more pervasive and easier to access. In other words, short of having major breakdown in the ability to access and utilize the IP networks that are out there today to make this happen and then include people in them. It is going to happen, I mean, it’s not inconceivable that you might have for instance the folks who designed apps ignore this market, but I think they would do so at their own peril.The way in which I would think of it is, as the out layer cases are sure, I could always imagine things would get in the way. Most of which, by the way, are simply the loss of driving function. If magically somehow, the Greenhouse effect went away the price of energy went to zero, sure, that would kill the whole idea by definition. But the reality is, short of that, the technical ability is there. We can do this technically today, there’s no question. And then as a consequence, I’m very comfortable that in fact, this will proceed and proceed quickly.
Ben Lack: Why are you in this business and why does this industry interest you?
Bernie Meyerson: With that again, let me be clear, these are macroscopic views of where the world will go. The reason it interests us, is that if you don’t know where the car is going, it gets real hard to steer it. It’s like anything else. There are second and third order of sets that not only are not subtle but actually when you examine them, they’re massive and those are the things that you can actually engage in and have a profoundly positive impact on society and our company itself. If you’re successful in any one of these areas, in the case of the energy case, as an example, you may not be aware of it, the number one issue bedevilling the guys who basically build data centers is energy. I mean, there isn’t a single spare electron to be had in the City of New York, it’s not like you go put in a big data center and have great success. Well, part of it that is the data loads, the energy loads are very high and they’re not getting any smaller. The challenge therefore is, are there ways to mitigate the energy loads? It’s something that’s really of foundational interest to the entire information technology industry. So, right there, you have a tremendous reason for us to be engaged. That’s number one.Two, in smarter planet, one of the things we’re finding is that by doing very deep data analytics on the behavior of extraordinarily large systems. That means factories, cities, states; you can actually get underneath the things that are frankly killing off your ability to efficiently utilize resources. That’s the key word ‘efficient’. As a consequence to that, what we found was, we did this in Burlington, Vermont, for instance, one of our plants. We dramatically reduced the electrical usage of the plant without actually even so much as changing a light bulb. It’s not like we took out the standard lights and put in compact fluorescents, we didn’t. This is actually just using data analytics to discover where the needless uses were or where they were redundant and killing off one of the redundancies. As we went through the plant that had profoundly positive effect so again, we have a native interest because the underlying information technology that drove that capability is one of the things we’re focused on. In the research division, we have a project called Battery 500 that we’re partial to. Same thing, as looking at lithium-ion batteries with the subtleties of how you would make that work, and that refers to, the Battery 500 project is, creating a battery with enough electrical capacity to drive a vehicle a distance of 500 miles on a single charge and at an effective price point. In each of these cases, there are very significant sub-elements that are there. We’re not a power company, nor are we going to become one, but as you can undoubtedly understand, there are absolutely critical issues relating to power that in fact, our thing is near and dear to our heart.
Ben Lack: I want to ask the same question but more to a personal level. Why are you personally interested in this type of work?
Bernie Meyerson: My training is a fundamental physicist, solid state physics. If you are a scientist and you’re constantly doing the impossible with the attitude that it will only take a little longer than you expected, and that is what you try to do, right? You look at the stuff that everybody says you can’t do that, figure out if it’s real, because if it’s not real, and entire field said, you can’t do it, imagine the up-side when you succeed, right? Because nobody else is even looking at it, you run away with it. That is inherently of interest but the way that you really find those golden moments is understanding holistically how society works and what the big issues are. That’s the driver. If you don’t look laterally as opposed to vertically, you’re dead. There’s an old style of R&D, you know, dating back centuries which is people became phenomenally siloed, you became the absolute world expert of quantum chronodynamics and that is absolutely amazing field, fascinating. But, if it’s the only conversation you can have, it’s really hard to order lunch and eventually you starve to death because nobody knows that they can ship you a sandwich and it doesn’t have to be a boson. You have to have that broad lateral communication skill and knowledge base. The reason it’s of interest is, if you don’t take the broadest possible view of society, you miss some of the really great transitions that are coming that are also opportunities. Because for every wall that you might run into, there’s an equivalent ladder you can climb over the wall with and just change the world. And a couple of times in my career I have been lucky to be part of teams that pulled that off and with amazing outcomes, but you don’t do it by yourself and you don’t do it in a vacuum, so that’s why you really need to stay very tightly coupled to what’s going on in the world if you ever expect to have any useful impact on it.

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