Greening Energy and Transportation with Ideas from Steve Jobs

Americans are still mourning the recent passing of technology icon Steve Jobs, spurring a broad consideration of innovation and entrepreneurship in this country. To many people, he personified an improved technological future, touching and sometimes transforming far-flung industries with his creative thinking. Although Silicon Valley is awash in clean tech startups, and Al Gore sits on Apple's Board of Directors, Apple's environmental record is mixed. The company has drawn criticism in the past over e-waste issues. On the plus side, it is also known for encouraging longer battery life for its products and for taking steps to be more transparent about environmental business practices. But Steve Jobs could become a posthumous environmental hero if just a few of his pioneering ideas could be implemented in the energy and transportation sectors.

CCA: The iTunes Store for Energy?

For most of Steve Jobs' life, the energy sector was comprised of vertically integrated electric utilities which held local, state-mandated monopolies. The utilities generated electricity and carried it through transmission lines to homes and businesses. Utilities were told by state regulatory agencies how much they could charge customers, and then they billed them that amount.

This is not so different from what Steve Jobs may have seen in the music industry in 1995. Record labels pushed music through radio stations, then had the monopoly on the tapes and CDs sold at Tower Records, the Wherehouse, Sam Goody, or the music section at Border's. (How many anachronisms can you find in the previous sentence?)

The top-down energy system began to unravel in the late 20th century with the concept of "deregulation." In California, "deregulation" is associated with Enron scandals, but the concept was a good one: to open up the market to alternatives to fossil fueled monopolies. Following the 2001 energy crisis, the State re-regulated its energy sector, but also created a new option called "Community Choice Aggregation" (CCA) through Assembly Bill 117. Cities and counties may band together to access the energy markets directly, while the incumbent utilities continue to provide customers transmission, billing, and customer service. Marin County, California was able to launch the state's first CCA in May 2010. More recently, Sonoma County Supervisors are considering following neighboring Marin County in the creation of a Community Choice Aggregation to be called Sonoma Clean Power. The Supervisors, also acting as Directors of the County's Water Agency, reviewed a feasibility study that included up to 85 percent renewable energy by 2020.

How does Steve Jobs fit into this? California is already implementing many other innovative energy policies. Sonoma County has one of the mildest climates in the country, and is already at a huge advantage over other coal-dependent parts of the country since its incumbent utility, PG&E, is already coal-free, and announcing new large solar plants every few weeks. Even the status quo scenario has PG&E and the other investor owned utilities implementing a Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) that will make baseline power 33% renewable by 2020.

The key is to think of energy in a new way. Energy has been run in such a heavy-handed, top-down way, that it is very difficult to enter the market. Small producers (including anyone who has a rooftop) can take decades to make back their investment, and they are usually considered "nuisance power" by large utilities that were set up to handle energy only in megawatt increments.

What if there was an iTunes store for energy? The iTunes store is a user-friendly interface that allows developers to sell apps. Anyone can be a developer. Apple sets the rules and takes a cut, and it works! There are millions of creative apps now in existence. Communities could open the equivalent of an iTunes store for energy through a CCA by instituting feed-in tariffs, leveraging local land use policy, and grouping neighbors together to form "smart micro-grids." Most people don't know what any of those things are, and if the policies are done in a "Steve Jobs" way, no one would need to. All they need to know is that the CCA-iTunes Store for Energy set rules so that it's easier to produce energy, and anyone can become a producer.

Real Time Ridesharing - An App that Pays Drivers to Carpool

In attempting to reduce greenhouse gases, the transportation sector presents a notoriously difficult problem. Millions of people making millions of decisions every day. The levers on their decisions face obstacles; for example, a gas tax or carbon price is politically challenging, and a price on parking is generally unpopular, especially in the suburbs. Budget cuts and limited routes reduce the usefulness of public transit just when it is most needed.

Here is where Steve Jobs's innovations can address the transportation sector: a smartphone app to allow networked groups of drivers and riders to share a ride in a matter of minutes using computers and smartphones. Called "real-time ridesharing," this app is being developed for Contra Costa, Marin, and Sonoma Counties for a roll out in early 2012 courtesy of funds from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission's Climate Initiative Program.

Though these programs are still in the early phase of development, both CCA and real-time ridesharing provide a glimpse of a greener future for the energy and transportation sectors and build upon innovative ideas from Steve Jobs.