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By Jack Ganssle

Getting Rich While Doing Good

Published 4/21/2006

$72 a barrel. That's the price of oil as I write this, with some pundits predicting numbers approaching $90 in the very near future.

Jeez. When I was a teenager gas cost $0.30 a gallon. More than a few penurious times I bought a quarter's worth, enough to drive around for a day or two. Today big cars can eat most of a C-note on a single fill up.

Nationwide the price of natural gas has doubled in the last three years, with the price curve still headed steeply upwards.

Here in Maryland electricity's rates have been held artificially low for years. That ends in July, when costs are expected to go up 72%.

Conventional solutions to our energy woes - like building more power plants - have been stymied by NIMBYism and political strife. Yet even Patrick Moore, a founder of Greenpeace, now supports nuclear power. A proposal to build a wind power farm off the New England coast is opposed by many on a variety of grounds.

It's worth a trip to Denmark to see the profusion of windmills. That country produces a significant fraction of their power using these eco-friendly generators. I recently walked to the base of one, and was surprised to hear merely a low mechanical hum from it, counterpointed every few seconds by a soft whooshing sound as a giant blade swung by. Meanwhile it was cranking out megawatts of clean energy.

For years the concept of alternative forms of energy and conservation were mostly the province of the eco-fringe. But capitalism is a powerful force. Expensive energy makes Wall Street's stolid three piece suits pay attention to business proposals that can make money off tighter supplies.

Now AP reports (http://www.usatoday.com/tech/news/2006-04-10-green-venture-capitalist_x.htm) that venture capitalists Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers are prepared to invest $100 million in green businesses. These VCs are hardly starry-eyed tree huggers; they're making serious bets that being green will make big bucks.

And I think the embedded space is poised to make the biggest contribution to this effort.

Today's hybrid cars, some of which use half the gas of conventional vehicles, couldn't exist without a tremendous amount of compute power. Toyota's Prius, and the other cars that use their licensed Hybrid Synergy Drive, employ a network of 32 bit processors.

Think about that: a few square millimeters of silicon saving untold barrels of gasoline. Talk about leverage!

The developing world is demanding more. More power. More clean water. More transportation. All of that will be enabled by the technology we build.

I think the embedded revolution has hardly started. In the not-too-distant future a few pennies worth of chips will control everything from light switches to smart window shades. Every power cord will use a microprocessor to manage electron flow. Excessively smart toilets, plumbing fixtures and maybe even the pipes will use CPUs to dispense water more frugally. Roadway instrumentation will minimize gridlock.

That's the obvious stuff. Venture capitalists will fund companies inventing technologies we can't anticipate; some of those will impact our lives and our environment in very positive ways. All will fundamentally rely on embedded systems.

The Dow's 30 giant economy-drivers will no doubt continue to thrive. But the new, VC-funded green startups will make a ton of money.

What do you think? Will the greening of corporate American be good for embedded developers?