Wireless Comes Clean

Cleantech is fun because it touches so much, although technically in the case of wireless there is no touching going on (alas). Wireless is particularly effective when applied to more efficient use of energy, water and other resources. I first took notice of the growing wireless/cleantech ecosystem when I learned that Vulcan Capital (my neighbor in Seattle) had invested in a company called Ember. Other companies in the space, many of which use wireless for various sensing applications that monitor and automate demand of  energy and water use for utilities, buildings and facilities, have attracted investment including SynapSenseEka SystemsAccuwater and Powercast to name but a few. Of course major players such as Honeywell and Siemens (through spin-off EnOcean) are also heavily involved. A newcomer called On-Ramp Wireless is claiming orders of magnitude greater capacity and range when compared to other systems based on the Zigbee standard (a full list of companies involved with Zigbee can be seen here). Wayne Manges, a leading wireless advocate with the Oak Ridge National Lab, put the whole “green wireless” opportunity into perspective in an interview with Green Mountain Engineering. Mr. Manges noted: “The ‘holy grail,’ of course, is low-cost ubiquitous sensors. With improvements in process visibility users get better energy efficiency, materials use, quality control, inventory tracking and reduced waste.” He predicted that wireless sensing will spark “a tidal wave of change” to industry and culture. Pacific Northwest National Labs is also doing work in this area, focused more on managing HVAC systems wirelessly, something my client Optimum Energy is working on as well. The Department of Energy (DOE) has largely been responsible for creating the industry for wireless in energy management, in part through itsguaranteed loan program. One of the keys, according to Manges and others, to really blowing out the wireless cleantech segment is promulgating standards that take away the hesitation of end-users, many of whom are wary of investing without protocols that can talk to each other. ISA 100 intends to do that, and expects its first standard to come out in December 2008. Suffice it to say that cleantech is more than just the sexy, shiny (and high risk) renewable energy gadgetry. It is also the more mundane, but equally if not more impactful, world of wireless controls and automation and their importance in delivering on the promise of the smart grid. Even so, there is also cutting edge work being done to achieve Nikola Tesla’s dream of wireless transmission of energy, including experimentation with magnetic resonance by Marin Soljacic at MIT, which might eventually have even bigger ramifications. This will continue to be a fun space to watch.