Web-enabled: A block-by-block visualization shows the increase in listings of rooms for rent in San Francisco on the website Airbnb between 2008 (left) and 2012 (right).
Unlike traditional clean tech, the clean Web doesn’t always have to do with producing energy. Consider peer-to-peer online markets that foster collaborative consumption. Airbnb is an online service that allows consumers to rent local accommodations in people’s homes instead of hotels. The company probably wasn’t founded with energy efficiency in mind, but given that hotels are three times as energy intensive as the average home, the cumulative impact of reducing hotel use could be significant. The company rents more than 10,000 rooms nightly; while that’s less than a tenth the number of hotel rooms in Las Vegas, keep in mind that these savings are organized almost entirely through a computer program, and Airbnb is growing extremely fast (see map). That’s the idea: obtain clean-technology benefits at the speed and scale the Web can create.
Restructuring markets to save resources isn’t confined to hotels and the built environment. Car sharing is on a rapid growth curve: the number of shared vehicles rose from a little over 1,400 in 2004 to over 12,000 last year. Car-sharing leader Zipcar claims that every one of its shared vehicles is displacing the need for 15 others. At today’s volume, that’s 190,000 vehicles that don’t need to be built. IT that facilitates videoconferencing and telecommuting cuts down on energy use, too.
Computer programs are only as good as the data we feed them. That is currently a major limitation, but it’s one we see being rapidly overcome. There are currently 2.5 billion sensors connected to the Internet, such as GPS locators on shipping pallets and even volume sensors on trash cans. That number is expected to grow to 100 billion in the next 10 years. With the emergence of this “Internet of things” will come a vast increase in data that can be sliced and diced, creating new opportunities to unearth patterns and possibilities for energy savings.
Utilities across the U.S. had installed 26 million smart meters on homes by the end of last year, and the same is occurring in China and Europe. These meters, combined with sensors in dishwashers or thermostats, will produce much more detailed information about a home’s patterns of energy use. Using this information, consumers will be able to shift energy use to times when it’s least expensive. The White House’s Green Button initiative, which gets utilities to provide customers with their energy-use data, will go a long way in enabling the army of developers out there to create the next great home energy app.
According to the Cleantech Group, venture capitalists invested in 414 cleanweb financing rounds since 2009, representing 18 percent of all clean tech deals. Entrepreneurs, designers, and engineers are coming together in weekend-long hackathon events around the country to see what kinds of apps they can create in 36 hours using public data, like efficiency rankings of refrigerators sold on Amazon.com or the energy profiles of public buildings. We’ve held events in San Francisco and New York City, and a half-dozen more are planned this year. We’re still at the very beginning of this movement. But more people are beginning to understand that the application layer of tomorrow’s energy technology is being written today.
Sunil Paul and Nick Allen are partners at the venture capital firm Spring Ventures in San Francisco.