Imagine a grocery store full of items without prices. You take your selections to the checkout counter and swipe your credit card. A month later, you receive the bill but it's not itemized; there's only a single price for all of the products you purchased.
That sounds preposterous, said Google engineer Omar Khan in a presentation at the California Academy of Sciences on Thursday evening, but that's how people buy power today.
Invoking the words of physicist Lord Kelvin, Khan said, "If you cannot measure it, you cannot improve it."
Google PowerMeter is an iGoogle gadget that displays data about home energy usage, data provided by the new generation of network-ready smart power meters that are being installed by various utilities around the world. It's currently in closed testing, but Google plans to expand its availability later this year.
Google PowerMeter aims to provide people with the information necessary to understand their power usage. And in this context, information is power, both figuratively -- made measurable, power usage can be improved -- and literally -- the data describes power usage.
Information is also money when the issue is power. Khan said that just having information about power consumption -- real-time feedback -- typically results in energy bill savings of 5% to 15%. With investments in more energy efficient appliances and materials, consumers can bring that figure to between 20% and 40%.
Khan's account of the experience of Google employees testing Google PowerMeter suggests that energy conservation will fit well with the social computing paradigm. He said that some Google employees shared their power usage data with each other and that prompted some testers to compete with one another to be the most energy efficient.
However, making power usage public can be a social pressure some might not welcome. Khan mentioned that a Madison, Wisconsin utility is making power usage data public unless customers choose to opt out. "It's almost like a shaming approach," he said.
As power utilities move into the information age, thorny issues like data ownership and privacy still need to be sorted out. Khan recounted how authorities in Britain tried using helicopters equipped with infrared scanners to look for inefficient energy usage and inadvertently discovered hothouses growing marijuana. They shut the program down for privacy reasons, he said.