TechNet: Power A Concern For All, Not Just IT

STANFORD, Calif. –- The annual TechNet conference may have been about technology, but this year’s show was thinking green, and not necessarily money green, either.

TechNet is a bipartisan political action group of senior executives formed in 1997 by tech firms in the Silicon Valley. This year’s discussion had political tinges and more than a little criticism, without being partisan.

The ever-troubling issue of power and cooling was front and center in a panel featuring Sun Microsystems chairman and co-founder Scott McNealy, venture capitalist John Doerr of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and KR Sidhar, co-founder and CEO of Bloom Energy.

The three were interviewed by Charlie Rose for his PBS interview series.

Doerr said energy is an issue that matters to everyone “from environmentalists to evangelicals.”

He noted that the U.S. is shipping hundreds of millions of dollars a year for oil to countries “with a target painted on our back.” Moreover, he noted China is emerging as an economic power, and the climate is changing.

All of this demands a change in energy policy, he said.

Unfortunately, he said the U.S. doesn’t have leadership in the area or a federal energy policy, and he dinged the Bush Administration more than once for this.

“We have no leadership in the White House,” he said, but he predicted the next batch of candidates from both political wings will be more mindful of the issue.

Doerr noted how the President said the U.S. is “addicted to oil” at his last speech, but nothing has been done since then to address the issue.

The VC luminary also proposed making it a mandatory goal to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, reducing output to 1990 levels by the year 2020. One solution would be to invest in carbon sequestration to take CO2 emissions out of power plants, he said.

He also said we should lessen our dependence on oil in favor of renewable energy sources like solar, wind, fuel cells and solar thermal.

McNealy stuck to computing and promoted his company at every opportunity. He also had the best jokes. When discussing what individuals can do to save power, he replied, “I’m all for shaving once a week.”

But the facts he cited weren’t laughing matters. He referred to a Gartner report that said 40 percent of IT budgets will be consumed by power concerns by 2011. Data centers are such power hogs that they produce 500,000 tons of CO2 emissions every year.

He also said it’s less efficient to move power –- half of the power is lost during transmission -— so the best solution is to put the data center where the power was.

This set up McNealy’s promotion of the Blackbox portable data center Sun introduced earlier this year.

McNealy had the perfect solution for cooling a data center like the Blackbox: put it in a remote location like Calgary, Canada “and leave the doors open.”

He also showed off a “Niagara” UltraSparc T1 chip, saying that older CPUs used to consume 100 watts per thread; the next generation of Niagara chips will consume one watt of power per thread.

Promoting his company aside, McNealy was more diplomatic toward the Bush administration than Doerr.

“We feel every company should take a huge eco-responsibility,” McNealy said. “Energy does cost money, there isn’t a CEO who doesn’t understand that.”

“The whole world gets balled up in whether we will be under 50 feet of water or two feet under water, or is [global warming] a natural phenomenon,” he continued. “Either way, it isn’t worth getting into that debate, let’s just all work on it.”

One person getting to work on it is Sidhar, whose company is developing fuel cell technology. It’s not an easy task, as he pointed out it took around $30 million in venture capital money to set up Google and Amazon, but his firm raised over $300 million.

It can take two to five years to make a dot-com firm successful, but energy companies are a five- to 10-year effort to see fruition.

But it’s necessary as the rest of the world advances and reduces poverty.

“There is a correlation between per capita GDP and power consumption. As they get out of poverty, power consumption goes up exponentially. We are not going to be able to curb that demand,” Sidhar said.

He said that more than one billion people are coming out of poverty as their societies advance, and that 2 billion still don’t have access to electricity, but will eventually.

“This world doesn’t have the resources to meet that capacity,” he said.