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Q&A with Cisco's Laura Ipsen: Telepresence reduces carbon at Copenhagen

Laura Ipsen is senior vice president and general manager in charge of the Smart Grid for Cisco, and she’ll be speaking at our GreenBeat conference next month, where we’ll be discussing the most disruptive technologies bringing change to the old carbon-based grid system. Below is a Q&A I just had with her over the phone.

The Smart Grid is the more efficient electrical grid that the nation is moving toward, one that relies on more renewable energy and emits less carbon into the atmosphere. Just Tuesday President Obama announced a $3.4 billion federal investment into Smart Grid projects.

Notably, Ipsen says Cisco has offered its Telepresence technology to the United Nations climate change talks in Copenhagen in December — so that stakeholders from around the world can have access to the diplomats who will negotiate a pact to lower emissions without actually having to fly to Copenhagen to do so. It’s a pretty extensive effort, hooking up almost 100 different offices into a virtual carbon-lite experience.

Cisco is also pushing hard to make sure the Smart Grid runs on internet protocol (IP) technology, which Cisco argues will make communications on the grid more efficient, reliable and secure. The internet, of course, is Cisco’s natural strong suit, given that Cisco laid much of the backbone of the Internet with its routers. But this all-Internet agenda clashes with much of the legacy technology that the current grid relies on. In addition to her Smart Grid responsibilities, Ipsen is on Cisco’s EcoBoard, which means she is helping lead Cisco’s efforts to reduce its carbon footprint across its product lines and operations.

Here are a few excerpts (summarized) from my conversation with Laura Ipsen.

VentureBeat: How’s your job going?

Ipsen: I’ve been in the job 40 days. But I’ve been at Cisco for 14 years and have been active in global warming policy at Cisco for a while. My move to govern our Smart Grid activities wouldn’t have happened without our council and board structures [more on this lower down].We’ve been looking for ways Cisco can influence standards in the policy and the regulatory environment.

VentureBeat: How would you characterize Cisco’s internet-focused agenda for the grid?

cisco gridIpsen. We certainly recognize that this isn’t about fork-lifting the internet on top of the existing Smart Grid transmission. We’re asking how we can take the lessons learned from what IP has enabled — from things like workforce training to development of services. We’re asking “How is energy and electricity different from communications?”

For instance, utility companies are still sending people to climb up poles. With communications, there are new opportunities: How do we use video to optimize how we monitor and manage the grid? We understand there’s a grid already built out, and it would be a mistake not to recognize that the existing infrastructure isn’t critically important. So when we say we want to create a more open IP platform, we don’t view this as a revolution, but as an evolution. And there are many other questions: How do you optimize carbon trading models to accelerate the usage of renewables? What are we able to drive with the internet that we are also able to do with the grid?

Let’s think big and out of the box. We’re asking, how do we drive a broader agenda, and do that through the grid by using a communications platform? And this is a global question. We’re seeing lots of activity in emerging countries like China or India. India has already picked three states where they’ll go out to build out the Smart Grid and has agreed to spend $150 million dollars in each state, to modernize generation.

VentureBeat: Does Cisco have contracts in India to help them?

Ipsen: We’re looking at those opportunities. We have relationships with the lead integrators there such as Infosys.

VentureBeat: Is most of the action right now outside of the U.S.?

Ipsen: In fact, most of the momentum we see is in the U.S. and Europe.

That’s partly because of policy. Here in the U.S., we have $4.5 billion being spent on the Smart Grid. Cisco has active engagements with utility customers, where we’re helping expand the road map for the Smart Grid, from Southern California Edison and Duke, and in Europe with Yello Strom in Germany. The question is how do we roll out from those pilots? How do we manage the platform and the whole ecosystem of the grid, and how do we scale it?

From what we’ve seen in the U.S., there’s a lot of momentum around the advanced metering infrastructure (AMI), in other words the smart meters, the home energy management types of things. Here, we’re looking forward and asking, will AMI — the metering part, which is just a piece of what the Smart Grid will look like — accelerate adoption of substation automation and demand response, and integration of renewables? In other countries, infrastructure still needs to be built. If there are 230 new cities being built in China, there are huge opportunities to leapfrog and have a Smart Grid from the start.

We’re watching that, and talking with government, about the new infrastructure being built. That’s happening in the Middle East too. We’re asking: How do you make smart cities? Australia has a $150 million Smart City project, where they are looking to use technology to expand their city services and improve quality of life. While we have the smart grid investment in the U.S., there’s not an exact parallel investment in Europe. They are investing more in renewables, because they need to have 20 percent of their power coming from renewables by 2020, according to EU targets. That shows how policy and regulation will impact the acceleration of markets.

Smart GRidIn California, it’s great that Gov. [Arnold] Schwarzenegger has increased the renewable portfolio standard to 33 percent. Another question is: how do you secure the Smart Grid, with a robust end to end infrastructure that integrates cyber and physical security at substations that are very vulnerable? Finally, in other developing countries, utilities are building out communications services alongside their power lines. But broadband over powerline (VPL) hasn’t been hugely successful in the U.S.

VentureBeat: What’s been the most exciting thing about your job?

Ipsen: Several weeks ago, at an event where the Chinese Chairman Wu made his first trip to the US, he talked about a critical need to implement the smart grid, and how important technology is for the future of his country. Instead of beating up on technology companies for the emissions they produce, governments realize that technology is an enabler. And this is something we’re taking to the Copenhagen talks, through the donation of Cisco’s Telepresence technology and the creation of a Global Climate Change Meeting Platform [Editor's note: See our piece about Cisco's teleconferencing technology]. We believe this will accelerate dialogue, help reduce travel, and thus improve management of carbon use during the Copenhagen talks. Governments see technology as a net positive, an investment they must make to become more effective at how they manage power, and the move to scale their grids and accelerate the move to renewables.

VentureBeat: The U.S Chamber of Commerce has resisted support of “cap and trade” climate change legislation, something that has forced Nike, PG&E and Apple to leave the Chamber. What about Cisco? Are you supporting the Chamber’s view?

Ipsen: We’re members of the Chamber. We’ve expressed concern over some of the activities, and it’s obviously disappointing. We work on a number of issues through the Chamber, and they’re effective on IP issues, in fact they’re effective in lots of areas, including in China. Our approach has been to influence things under the tent with them, to play a constructive role and move them into a positive position. We’ve talked with them about how important technology can be to impact climate change. They’re coming around to acknowledge that role of technology. We support cap and trade. We’re not one of the big emitters. We’ve set goals to reduce our carbon 25 percent by 2012. We use telepresence internally. We have a calculator built in, so that we know the amount of carbon we’re reducing by not traveling.

VentureBeat: Explain a bit more about Cisco’s “Eco-Board.”

Ipsen: I kicked off the EcoBoard with another executive three years ago. We thought we needed to set a strategy, and around the same time we joined the EPA Climate Leaders program to learn more about how to reduce our environmental impact. The board consists of 14 executives across the company, and we set joint goals around what the company does around environment and sustainability. That’s how we got support in Copenhagen. It was Al Gore’s idea, to get [Cisco's] Telepresence in the United Nations. It’s able to connect officials, by leveraging more than 70 Cisco offices, a dozen or so Danish embassies, and five UN locations around the world to bring people into [the Copenhagen talks] without traveling to the conference in the Fall. The media will be able to use it as well.

VentureBeat: And then you’re on Cisco’s “Smart Grid Board”?

Ipsen: Yes. That was created about 18 months ago, when Cisco was looking for how to leverage its assets on the Smart Grid. I was involved since the inception given my background in environmental and government policy. We have different teams working on standards and on policy. They work together. They’ve worked with the National Institute of Standards and Technology around Internet Protocol and open standards. This is also where we ask, how do we work with IEEE, and the Internet Engineering Task Force?

VentureBeat: Have you applied for any of the $4 billion in federal Smart Grid funding?

Ipsen: We’ve focused on what our customers would like. We don’t directly apply for anything, but we do help our customers apply. As it relates to the smart grid, you’ve got to create pilots and regional projects that can scale. Pilots without a strategy to scale won’t go anywhere.

That’s why support is needed for a diversity of projects. You don’t want it all directed to one piece of the grid. End to end security is really important to get our heads around. Stimulus funding is a catalyst. Even if only 20 to 50 percent of the funding will have lasting impact, and produce jobs and drive a wave of innovation, that should be our strategic objective.

greenbeat_logo71Are you an executive focused on clean technology or the grid? Consider coming to the seminal executive conference on the Smart Grid, on Nov. 18-19, featuring the Who’s Who of the grid, including Nobel Prize winner Al Gore, Kleiner Perkins’ John Doerr and more. Get your discounted early-bird tickets before Oct. 31 at GreenBeat2009.com.


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