In a move to connect the emerging smart energy grid with the Internet, Google on Wednesday announced partnerships with eight national and international energy companies to allow consumers to access data about their energy usage through Google's PowerMeter gadget.
Google PowerMeter is a software application that can be embedded on the company's iGoogle personal home pages. It 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.
Armed with information about their energy usage, consumers can modify their appliance usage habits to save energy and money. And doing so allows utilities to operate more efficiently.
Google's partners are San Diego Gas & Electric in California, TXU Energy in Texas, JEA in Florida, Wisconsin Public Service Corp., White River Valley Electric Cooperative in Missouri, Glasgow EPB in Kentucky, Reliance Energy in India, and Toronto Hydro–Electric System in Canada.
Google says that Google PowerMeter is only available to a limited set of customers at the moment, but it expects to make its software more widely available as smart meters become more widely available.
Hal D. Snyder, VP of customer solutions for SDG&E, says that his company is in the process of installing more than 1.4 million smart meters in the San Diego region. The project is expected to be completed by the end of 2011. Its goal, he said, "is getting information in the hands of our customers so they have control and can utilize it in their day-to-day lives."
"Just getting this information in the hands of our customers, these customers could reduce energy usage by 5% to 10%," he said.
Snyder says that Google isn't the only tech company looking to link the Internet to the emerging smart energy grid. "All I can say is Google is the first; you'll see others," he said. "We have an open architecture. We're not just committed to Google."
SDG&E goals go beyond empowering customers. Like other utilities, it sees business opportunities in the connection between the power grid and the Internet. Smart meters are only one facet of the smart grid.
"Once we get this information into the home, the next step is the automation of home energy usage," said Snyder.
The two-way communication capabilities of smart meters will allow enable scenarios in which consumers with energy-generation or storage capacity have the opportunity to sell energy back to utilities.
"As more and more homes have solar panels or small fuel cells, we're going to see a need to have the ability to manage all that energy," Snyder explained.
What remains to be seen is the extent to which the opportunity to conserve power becomes pressure to do so. Just as Internet service providers have expressed interest in discriminatory pricing as a way to manage bandwidth costs, utilities could seek to charge more for specific usage patterns, scenarios, or appliances.
And there could be a social cost to failing to curtail one's energy expenses. It's not that far-fetched to imagine extravagant energy consumption becoming a liability in certain circles, like driving a gas guzzler.
Information is power, as is information about power usage. Hope that Google and power companies use that power judiciously.
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