Bullish On America

The fiscal cliff notwithstanding, the shale boom is making people bullish about America. Roger Cohen put it very elegantly, “…the self image and economic prospects of an energy independent United States are going to see a sharp uptick.” And cheap energy isn’t the only thing we may have going for us. We also have a youth bulge that is thinking creatively on everything from how to hail a taxi to how we use energy.

Not everyone is happy with this new “app generation.” In San Francisco, the incumbent industry is suing to prevent young people from getting across the bridge more rapidly and efficiently with the help of Uber. But the advent of an entire generation of Americans who can download entertainment content from a tiny phone (as compared to their parents who couldn’t figure out how to program their VCRs) holds great promise, not only for the U.S. economy but also for the energy world.

Today’s twenty year olds think differently about logistics. Smart phones assist with everything from picking a breakfast spot to mapping a walking route in a new city. When it comes to the electricity business, this is a generation that may just be the one ready to use time of day pricing and complex, computer assisted interactive systems for distributed energy. And, Silicon Valley software designers have put stodgy utilities on notice: fail to provide stable electricity supplies and we will go our own way. Is there an app for that? Maybe not yet, but someday, perhaps…Microsoft has an energy division looking at smart automated building systems.

As the App world meets Big Energy, we can expect revolutionary, energy saving changes in building technologies, electricity storage and distribution, and changing preferences for the means and methodologies of personal mobility.

Already, firms like Google and Facebook have ditched established commuting and transportation paradigms (and the need for personal vehicles) and are providing private shuttle bus services for a reverse commute from desirable urban neighborhoods to their far flung suburban office parks. Then there is the emerging community choice aggregation model that it is hoped will enable local, distributed energy systems. The end goal: self-empowerment. Someday, from my smart phone, could I pick an electricity source as easily as downloading a new music video? No way, energy experts say. There are scale and reliability issues, trillions of dollars of incumbent infrastructure, intermittency problems, and cost.

On the other hand, if you are over 50, you have to ask yourself: do we think that because we couldn’t program our VCRs?