Thursday, June 24, 2010

Powering the Future: Smart Grids and Alternative Energy Sources

By: Derek Howard

Most of us don’t spend a lot of time thinking about our energy supply. We flip a switch and if the light comes on, we go about our day. However, now more than ever, electricity drives our society. We can’t, nor do we want to, live without our lights, computers and appliances; and sooner or later that smart phone is going to have to be recharged. But it’s bigger than just our immediate needs. Electricity powers everything from our street and traffic lights to our food processing plants. Even modern day gas pumps require electricity to function. A recent classroom discussion about how most people these days wouldn’t know how to begin to live without electricity really drove home the importance of this energy source. But no worries- we flip the switch and the light comes and it always will, right? Well…

The Smart Grid

The problem is that our energy supply is not infinite. This coupled with a possible world population growth of 7.5 billion by 2020 has caused many to cast a serious eye towards this issue. One solution that is showing real promise is the concept of the smart grid. Smart grids offer an improvement over traditional energy infrastructures. This new form of power grid can deliver energy in a much more efficient manner. Instead of a constant broadcast of power that the traditional model follows, the smart grid can monitor and route power only when and where it is needed. This can increase both the efficiency and cost of energy supply. One specific problem the smart grid can help with is outages. Outages cost U.S. businesses billions of dollars in lost revenue each year. The smart grid could conceivably be able to reroute power around the problem area to help lessen the impact of the outage.

One of the ways that smart grids work is by taking advantage of alternate energy sources. At a recent Technology Association of Georgia (TAG) Smart Grid Society meeting, three experts in this field talked about these sources and their impact on society.

Three alternate energy sources

Wind energy is one such source. Guest speaker Tom Garrity, retired vice-president and general manager for High Voltage Systems, Siemens Energy, Inc., spoke about how energy is the backbone of our society and the market for clean, safe energy has grown significantly. Wind can supply this kind of energy. Technology such as micro-turbines could supply homes and businesses with abundant and green power. One interesting concept he spoke of was the idea of off-shore wind farms. These farms could take advantage of ocean winds to capture and route power to inland locations through the use of smart grids.

Another alternate source of energy is biofuel. Jill Stuckey, the director of the Ga. Center of Innovation- Energy Division, is an expert on renewable energy. Biomass is an abundant and viable energy source, especially in Georgia. The state is second only to Oregon in timber production. As she put it, “We grow trees the way Iowa grows corn.” Using trees to create biomass such as wood pellets can create everything from fuel for electricity to biofuels for our cars. Even waste water can be converted into energy and the smart grids can incorporate all these possibilities.

The final speaker was Walter Brown, the chairman for the Ga. Solar Energy Association. Brown spoke about the rapid increase and growth in the field of solar energy. Over six years, the industry has seen a seven-fold growth in commercial and utility sectors. One of the biggest restraints to this clean source of energy has been the cost of silicon, required for the cells, but this cost is dropping. Solar energy can be harnessed anywhere you can install the panels, from empty fields to building and warehouse rooftops. This energy could be stored, monitored and controlled through the use of smart grids.

Energy tends to be one of those things we don’t think about until we don’t have it. Sadly, the way things are trending, that could be sooner rather than later. We are depleting our natural resources at an alarming rate. Fortunately, the use of smart grids powered by alternate forms of energy like wind, biofuels and solar could really help turn the tide on this growing problem. These creative solutions will ensure that the light comes on not only when we flip the switch but when future generations do as well.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Three Digital Trends That Can Impact Business

By: Derek Howard

Trends are funny things. They can slowly smolder, building momentum or flash brightly with a quickness only to crash just as fast. But occasionally, something gains enough ground to stay with us. The trick is knowing the difference. We’ve all, at one time another, jumped on a fad that we thought was going to be the next big thing only to laugh fondly (and a little embarrassingly) after it fades. One fad that has become a major player in the world today is the Internet. Once the purview of only the tech savvy, the Internet has become the playground for, well, everyone- a digital hang-out for all.

This playground has become pervasive. These days, the digital landscape not only impacts society, it defines it. Smart companies are taking note of this fact. If your customers are interested in something, it pays (literally) to know what that something is. Tracking and following trends online can really help a business to connect with its customers in a way that can be less intrusive than standard marketing. With finite money and time, a big part of that is knowing what deserves your attention.

At a recent TAG (Technology Association of Georgia) Enterprise 2.0 Society meeting, guest speaker Jeff Hilimire gave his insights on these digital trends. Hilimire is the chief digital officer for Engauge Digital and heads their digital innovation group- basically it’s his job to watch trends within the digital world. The three digital trends he focused on particularly were Facebook, lifestreaming and checking-in/social gaming.

Facebook, as Hilimire put it, is “the elephant in the room.” These days, it seems hard to find people not logging onto this juggernaut on a regular basis, and the hard data backs this up. The site has over 400 million users and continues to grow. According to Hilimire, a company’s Facebook page could be more important than its website. So why should companies care about Facebook? Well, for starters, the average user spends more than 55 minutes on Facebook at a time. When you compare that to the average time a person spends on a single webpage (about 56 seconds), it’s obvious which has the greater chance for exposure. Plus, Facebook is a peer-centric site. People tend to trust and listen to information from friends more than faceless companies. Facebook lets companies gain that face by offering tools such as “recommend” and “like” plug-ins. These can allow companies the chance to interact with their customers in a relaxed and effective manner. However, the whole peer-centric nature of Facebook can be both good and bad for businesses. Because so much information is shared so quickly and easily, one bad review could blossom quickly. But this kind of forces companies to produce better products. As Hilimire noted, good social media will not fix your bad company or product.

The next trend he spoke of was something he called lifestreaming. “People are getting comfortable broadcasting their lives,” Hilimire said. Blogging, uploading photos and videos, Facebook status updates, etc. - these are all part of a developing trend where people are laying bare their lives in the digital world. Just like companies, people have brands. Lifestreaming is kind of a way for them to stay relevant. Businesses can look at this the same way. Hilimire suggests that companies view lifestreaming as portable content. If you pay attention to all this freely given consumer data, your business could create content that matches and therefore attracts your customers: syncing your brand with the consumer’s brand.

Lastly, Hilimire spoke briefly about the trends of checking-in and social gaming. Check-in sites, like Foursquare, allow users to “check-in” to places they visit, such as restaurants and hotels. The relevancy to businesses is promising. Basically, its location-based marketing and some experts are claiming it’s the next big thing. Companies that are taking advantage of these sites are using rewards and promotions to connect with their customers. Social gaming is all about people playing games online where they interact with other people, usually friends and family. The number of players and the amount of time they play is impressive. One example is Farmville, the most popular app in Facebook’s history. Farmville boasts 90 million players world-wide- that’s a lot of possible customers all connected by the same thing.

Digital trends are becoming more and more important for businesses today. Companies should follow their customers. If people seem really excited about a site or tool, it’s a good idea to understand why. However, understanding the why is not always easy; sometimes it requires looking beyond the trend itself. One of Hilimire’s key principles says it best, “Don’t look at the finger, look where it’s pointing.”