Cleantech Sense and Sensibility: UCSD and Internet Guru Larry Smarr Push for Wide Adoption of Sensors to Save Energy, Cut Greenhouse Gases

If Jane Austen had been an avant-garde technology writer instead of a 19th Century English novelist, she might have imagined a character like Larry Smarr: a brainy and bespectacled man of 61 years who tends the roses and fuchias of his La Jolla garden on weekends while designing the infrastructure of the Internet the rest of the week.

In his Twitter bio, Smarr writes, “I was a mathematician, then physicist, then astrophysicist, then supercomputer director, now computer scientist. I have made change my friend.”

Now, as director of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology, Smarr wants to do for energy conservation and green technologies what he did for Web innovation. He is enthusiastically endorsing the widespread use of sensors for real-time monitoring of power use in buildings. The savings could be huge and the environmental benefits enormous, Smarr says, because energy used to heat and cool buildings generates 40 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

Smarr described the idea at a UC San Diego forum Wednesday evening: wireless sensors nowadays can continuously monitor temperature and many other factors inside and outside a building—and relay the data to Web-based environmental control systems designed to maximize energy efficiencies.

“If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it,” said Smarr, adding that “the electrical bill of this building is $1 million a year.” During his presentation, Smarr noted that UC San Diego has now installed sensors throughout 34 of its buildings, and publishes the resulting data online and in real time. UCSD announced a few weeks ago that it has embarked on a $73 million program to increase the energy efficiency of 25 of its older buildings in an effort to reduce their combined energy costs by at least $6 million a year.

The concept is an example of what the forum’s organizers call “greenovation,” or green innovation. If Austen were still around, though, she might call it “Sensing and Sensibility,” or perhaps “Sense and Sustainability.”

Smarr told the audience that the desktop computers and servers in the UCSD computer science and engineering building account for 70 percent of the building’s baseload power demand. “And 90 percent of that could be avoided,” Smarr says, by adding software that would turn off display screens, internal wireless devices, and other energy-guzzling internal components when they’re not being used.

Whether Smarr’s call for a new era of energy-conscious chip and computer design will be heard in Silicon Valley and other hardware technology capitals remains to be seen. But UCSD, to its credit, has set out to establish itself as … Next Page »

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Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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