Nerds and geeks have come a long way since Weird Science. While the term “nerd” is still a bit derogatory, “geek” has taken on new meaning. After the .com boom, geeks all over Silicon Valley were vaulted into the millionaire club by the hundreds…(maybe thousands?). It seems that just overnight geeks were cool[-ish]. Of course, many of these Internet millionaires didn’t survive the .com bust with enough of their fortunes intact to make it to the Web 2.0 boom. Those that did were likely smart enough to not lose it again in our Great Recession. Many of these veterans are still quite young and looking for projects with deeper meaning.
Green Twilight Careers
Several of these notable tech entrepreneurs are using the global environmental crisis as their call to action to do something significant and long lasting. Tech veterans like Craig Bramscher are reinvesting their .com fortunes [along with other investors] into passionate ventures like the the Brammo Enertia. Even long-time geek philanthropist Bill Gates is redirecting his efforts towards fighting carbon emissions.
And they’re not the only ones. Successful Baby Boomers who have retired early after great careers are now looking towards the new green economy for a twilight career, something a little more altruistic. Of course, you could argue that it’s that same generation that led us to the brink…but who’s pointing fingers. At least my Dad let me have that 1978 GMC 3/4 ton pickup with the 350 complete with a four barrel carburetor that moved the needle when I opened up all four barrels. Regardless, these are experienced professionals with the technical, managerial, and business skills to make a difference. It’s not just their skills that they’re bringing back to the industry, either. Green investing is on the rise and there are even several simple Green ETFs to get you in the game.
Perhaps the country’s most powerful geek is President Obama. I voted for him because I thought he was the more intelligent and rational of the two. I trusted that he would listen to his advisers, understand them, and make smart decisions. Sure I researched his voting record, stance on issues, and his campaign platform. Who knows how much of that can you trust? The only thing I was a little concerned with was foreign policy, since that’s hardly a rational game. Seems like he’s doing all right. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev thinks he’s a pleasure to work with.
And when it comes to our nation’s energy needs, he’s doing exactly as I had hoped. Brilliantly, he appointed a serious geek as Secretary of Energy, Dr. Steven Chu, a man well poised to lead us in an energy revolution. Fossil Fuels have been at the forefront of the World’s energy infrastructures and government policies since the Industrial Revolution. Fossil fuels powered our country’s tremendous development, and now they are at the center of our very way of life. The cabinet position of Secretary of Energy has long been filled with lifetime politicians with backgrounds in law, finance, political science, and the military. The office has dealt with oil crises, the rise [and stagnation] of nuclear, and global warming, and yet this is the first time that we’ve appointed a scientist. Although, to call Dr. Chu a mere scientist is a bit of an understatement. He’s a Ph.D. from Berkley. He’s a physicist, professor, the former director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and a Nobel Prize winner.
I want that to sink in a little bit. This man is likely smarter [by an order of magnitude] than anyone you’ve ever met…or will ever meet. It’s not like he’s a barely functional super-genius either. He was a director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory after all.
Energy Revolution, the Start-Up
America’s administration and tech/financial talent are all rallying behind the environmental cause, and I find it very promising. During my tech career, I’ve worked for a few companies, worked with numerous other companies, and worked on many different teams throughout. I’ve seen the way defense contractors work, and I’ve seen the way start-ups operate. Of the two, the utility companies operate somewhere nearer to the defense industry on that spectrum. They operate enormous legacy systems where uptime is absolutely vital. Therefore they innovate at a ridiculously cautious pace. If it were up to these utility companies to bring about a revolution, we’d be doomed.
However, the new breed of green start-ups in Silicon Valley and Central Florida come from a very different background. They know the importance of uptime as well, but they use a mixture of today’s most advanced software and hardware to solve today’s problems. They’ve been operating like this for years, because the start-up game is fast and vicious. It’s literally innovate now or shutter up your swanky new office. The utilities have been in operation for decades and aren’t going anywhere any time soon.
Coulomb Technologies is a perfect example of one such green start-up. As more and more EVs and plug-in hybrids make their way onto American streets, it’s going to put a tremendous burden on our energy infrastructure. I’m not just talking about the increased power demand, but simply the demand for places to plug in away from home. We’ve been building up our supply of corner gas stations since the first ICE (internal combustion engine) cars made their ways onto our streets. We can’t take that long to build up our network of charging stations. The answer getting these charging stations out quickly may be as simple as enhancing our many businesses and workplaces to accommodate charging instead of building massive banks of charging in special facilities. One thing that I’m learning on my Enertia, is that 45 minutes of charging can sometimes make the difference between getting home under my bike’s power…or under my foot power. Hence the rise of opportunity charging.
Coulomb Technologies is enabling such a system by selling charging stations to businesses and allowing them to set their own rate to charge for usage. This way companies like my employer can put them in and open them up to anyone for free, for a charge, or even just to employees. The brilliance of their design is that these charging stations are [relatively] inexpensive / dumb clients with the logic for all of the access control and billing done on their servers.
The keep these charging stations cheap, they have developed an ingenious design using rather inexpensive wireless technologies. The station can be activated with a phone call from your mobile, but more importantly they use an RFID reader to allow access if you have an RFID enabled credit cards or a key from Coulomb. I’m not certain, but I’m assuming that even employers might be able to give access with the employee’s badges. Although, I’m not sure if they would want to share that information with Coulomb.
The stations are managed via a wireless modem (CDMA or GSM). To keep costs low, only one unit on a site needs a modem. The remainder of the units talk through the main unit over a low cost ZigBee link. The reliance on wireless technology makes the deployment of these units incredibly simple. There’s not need to patch into a wired network or phone line, they simply need to be hooked up to the facility’s power and their ready to go. The system is designed with some good physical security as well. A session is started via the RFID or phone call. Initiating the session opens the door giving the user access to the outlet. Once they plug in, the door is then allowed to shut and is locked again starting the session. It remains locked until the user unlocks it again with their credit card, key, or mobile call. This not only protects the user’s cord from being stolen, but it also prevents someone else from charging on their bill.
The web 2.0 aspect of their technology is their client / server architecture. It enables them to deliver great features, such as email or SMS notifications when your vehicle is done charging. This allows you to free up the station early if you want. Although chances are, you’re just parking your vehicle there because it’s the next best thing to a handicapped spot and you drive a non-plug-in Prius. Please resist this urge. Some poor smuck on an EV might desperately need access to that charger to make it those last few miles home.
OK, so I didn’t really need this charge, and they actually had another charging station on the other side of the parking lot. I just thought it was hilarious that these to Prius drivers parked right there. And isn’t it remarkable that all three of our vehicles are gray?
While the email / SMS notifications are nice, I wasn’t really blow away. I was, however, floored by their Google Map mashup and their iPhone app. They provide users a way to find charging stations near them and to know important details about them such as public accessibility, type of station (1 or 2) and whether or not they’re in use. I speculate that they might also having billing rates in the future. Features like this are exactly the kinds of ideas that start-ups come up with and that a power utility might never.