Joi Ito's Web

Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

This week was an energy week for me. Stan Ovshinsky, the CEO of ECD, Bob Stempel, the Chairman (and the former chief executive of GM) and Iris Ovshinsky, the co-founder of ECD and Stan's wife were visiting Tokyo this week. We talked a lot about the relationship between energy and information and the fact that information was codified energy. The more I think about it the more it all starts to fit together into an amazing unified image.

The picture above is ECD's vision of the Hydrogen Economy. Get Carbon out of the picture. Reduce the cycle to the basic elements of the universe. Photons creating energy to break H2O into Hydrogen and Oxygen. Oxygen goes back to the atmosphere and the Hydrogen is stored and transported in the Hydride material. The Hydrogen is later extracted to create energy through combustion or through the creation of electrical energy with a fuel cell. This electricity can be stored in a Hydride battery which is also based on Hydrogen. The electricity obviously can be used for propulsion or be converted into meta-energy, or information. Photos->Hydrogen->Electrons->Bits that’s all we need. No CO2, fossil fuels, Uranium or any of the non-big-bang stuff please. Oh and by the way, the basic material and the phenomenon used to store hydrogen in a solid, the convert hydrogen in to electricity and the store electricity in hydride batteries is the based on the same basic science.

It is almost like the relationship between the mind and the body. The true cost of information is cost of the carrier which is based on the creation of energy. Just as the spirit lives in the mind which is carried inside of the body, Information is carried in bits which are carried on wires by electrons, thrust forward by some sort of energy source.

When I was talking to the Tokyo Power Company information division folks the other day, I realized an interesting thing... Just as the telephone company can provide flat fee traffic over their leased lines because they own the wires and fiber, the power company can provide data center and wires for free because they make money on the power consumption.

At a lunch with Jack Welch, he once said, "I love the Internet because it consumes energy and I sell more turbines."

Because power companies don't have legacy information businesses, they can jump into the information and telecom business unencumbered. If you also consider that the phone company is so leveraged and losing so much of their core revenue, such as voice, I can imagine a world where energy and power is the whole game and IT is just like an appliance that you OWN and only pay to power it. And... eventually with photovoltaics, we'll just have to buy energy conversion devices and get our energy from the sun...


That's the way it should be, certainly, but there are a few problems we have to overcome along the way.

1. There isn't a problem providing electricity or power. The problem as I see it is providing a stable, predictable, adjustable supply.

There is loads of electricity in the world. There are loads of ways of generating electricity and there is plenty of capacity. For example, the Danish wind power network was generating 150 percent of the national requirement at one point a few weeks ago. Problem was, it was the middle of the night and nobody wanted to buy it.

The problem is that everyone wants to use the power at the same time. You can't store the power without significant loss. You can't transport it for long distances either.

Also, everyone wants their power to be stable and predictable. Wind is simply not stable or predictable, for example.
I guess solar power is a bit more predictable, but it would depend on the climate. A home solar energy unit wouldn't be much use in Ireland for instance. It's hard to imagine a circumstance when you wouldn't be better off buying from the Grid.

2. We cannot deal with the energy crisis only by addressing supply. The energy crisis is at least as much due to surplus of demand as it is to lack of supply.

Some people are absolutely profligate in the way they use energy. One particular country comes to mind but most of us are guilty in some way.

If hundreds of millions of people are going to insist on going to buy groceries in small tanks, heating shoeboxes they live in in the Tundra to 25C and cooling the glasshouses they live in in the desert to 18C, then we just aren't going to resolve this problem.

Remember, that if oil production peaks next year but consumption continues to grow, not only will we have to find new means to cover not only the new demands for energy, but also find ways of replacing the existing demand.

3. Does anyone know of a country where the electricity company has made a real impact in the telecommunications business? I know there's the likes of energis in the UK, but they're really only involved in quite a limited way.

Very interesting comments. I'd like to know what the current exploration into biomass energy alternatives are. If we can convert methane into energy through gasification,modular systems or other means, I think we have a substantial source of energy in our waste areas- farms and landfills. I remember listening to NPR cover this topic, outlining a pig farm that had converted manure into energy- their initial outlay reimbursed w/in 5 years and was to the point where they were able to sell excess energy to the town they were located in. Not that I have faith in eco friendly systems being pressed in the current political climate, hah hah.

that thought on energy and information made me remembered one story of the original StarTrek TV series. in that, the Enterprise crew encounters strange aliens. they appear as humanoid form but every Tricoder reading were giving wrong measurements. at the end of the story, Mr.Spock and Cap. Kirk discovered that the aliens were no physical beings. they were the being of pure energy and intelligence...

aren't we there yet?

In answer to marie:

Let me tell you the most amazing thing, that I only found out a couple of weeks ago.

Any diesel car purchased in Europe in recent years can run on 'biodiesel'.

What is biodiesel, you ask? Well obviously enough, biodiesel is diesel that comes from plants, not from fossil fuels.

(Note coda below this message before you do anything rash.)

So where can you get biodiesel? Well, actually you can pick it up for free at any McDonalds if you're friendly with the manager. He might even pay you to take it away. It's cooking oil. Used cooking oil works just fine, apparently.

This has obvious benefits for the environment (though your exhaust fumes will smell like fried food).

I have to say, I was just blown over when I found this out.

Check out google for a bit more information (though don't believe all the technical details you read).

We in Ireland actually have a good bit of background in biomass plants. We used to burn peat, which is best described as the poor relation of the fossil fuel family. Burning biomass is very similar.

However, there is big environmental resistance to developing incinerators for municipal waste here. They do it in Germany though, and it hasn't harmed them.


(CODA: You weren't just going to take my word for it and pour cooking oil into your car just because you read it on the web, were you? You need to use an additive with the oil to keep the engine clean or else prime the engine with regular diesel. You may be breaking the law if you do this without paying the duty on the fuel you use. Many manufacturers do not recommend the use of biodiesel in their engines. Other terms and conditions may apply. Your mileage may vary. Void where prohibited.)

Not only can a diesel run on biodiesel, it can run on straight vegetable oil, without any conversion, although there are some conversions that can make it a bit more efficient.
see a FAQ

Perhaps you did not see the recent news item about the town in Wales where many of the citizens were running their cars and trucks on vegetable oil, which cost about a third of the the price of diesel. The police were cracking down on them, as they were thereby avoiding paying fuel taxes. It was fairly easy to detect the offenders, as their vehicles smelled like a passing chip shop... A later item reported that a chain of stations in the States is beginning to sell a fuel that is a mixture of diesel and vegetable oil, but oddly enough it is priced higher than diesel. The Story Calculations show that if the growing of hemp were legalised, fuel needs could be met, superior fibre made available for rope, paper, cloth, etc., and a possible enhancement to local intellectual culture induced...

Here's a relevant op-ed piece by Robert Redford on a post-petroleum future.

LA Times - The Highest Patriotism Lies in Weaning U.S. From Fossil Fuels
American rooftops can be the Persian Gulf of solar energy. After Australia, no developed nation on Earth gets more annual sunlight than the United States. In addition, wind is now the fastest-growing energy source worldwide and one of the cheapest. But wind and solar power generate less than 2% of U.S. power. We can do better.


yah, whats the story with the lack of action been taken in ireland at the moment in energy matters. we are huge polluters of carbon dioxide and have huge tidal and wind potential out there and we dont use it properly, wat think ye am doing my thesis on climate change and renewabl;e energy in ireland all the best paul c

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