Google PowerMeter: For A Planet In Peril

The prototype software will will allow users to receive real-time home energy usage data from compatible "smart meters" and use that information to optimize their energy use.
Having more or less organized the world's online information and made it widely, if not universally, accessible, Google has been looking offline for additional information to oversee.

One place the company is looking is into people's homes. Google on Tuesday announced that it was working on Google PowerMeter, prototype software that will allow users to receive energy usage data from compatible "smart meters" and use that information to optimize their energy use.

Thus climate change will be forestalled and Earth will be saved, or something like that.

The company made the announcement in a blog post that explains its broader effort to encourage the development of a "smart grid," a next-generation electrical distribution system that supports bidirectional energy and revenue flow.

"Google's mission is to 'organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful,' and we believe consumers have a right to detailed information about their home electricity use," said Google engineer Ed Lu. "We're tackling the challenge on several fronts, from policy advocacy to developing consumer tools, and even investing in smart grid companies. We've been participating in the dialogue in Washington, D.C., and with public agencies in the U.S. and other parts of the world, to advocate for investment in the building of a 'smart grid,' to bring our 1950s-era electricity grid into the digital age."

Smart meters, a key component in a smart grid, differ from standard power meters in that they can provide real-time energy-use data and price data to utility customers.

At present, there are about 40 million of the devices in use worldwide, with an additional 100 million planned over the next few years, according to Google. The Obama administration's recovery plan calls for 40 million smart meters to be deployed in the United States over the next three years. The map below shows where smart meters are being tested:

View Larger Map Google PowerMeter represents one possible front end to present energy data. It's available only to those participating in Google's closed beta test. At present, it takes the form of an iGoogle Gadget. Google Account holders can add it to their iGoogle pages for easier monitoring of energy usage.

According to a 2006 study conducted by the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University in the United Kingdom, feedback from smart meters leads to more efficient energy usage. "Savings have been shown in the region of 5-15% and 0-10% for direct and indirect feedback respectively," the study says. In comments filed with the California Public Utilities Commission, Google estimates the average U.S. consumer could save $60 to $180 per year using a smart meter.

Lest anyone accuse Google of trying to expand its store of valuable search data with information on home energy use, Lu in his post tried to preempt concerns with a declaration of good intentions. "We believe that detailed data on your personal energy use belongs to you, and should be available in an open standard, non-proprietary format," he said. "You should control who gets to see your data, and you should be free to choose from a wide range of services to help you understand it and benefit from it."

Google expands on its commitment to respect the sanctity of home energy-use data in an online FAQ. It states that Google PowerMeter is an opt-in service and that it shares no personally identifying information between Google and the user's utility. It reiterates Lu's statement, noting that users will be able to delete their energy data or ask their utility to stop sending data to Google PowerMeter at any time.

Google promises to provide a more complete privacy policy once the service launches.

Google has been trying to advance the development of a smart energy grid at least since 2007, when its philanthropic arm,, introduced its RechargeIT initiative. RechargeIT is a climate and energy program that aims to foster the use of plug-in hybrid cars and vehicle-to-grid technologies.

Green IT is an initiative that businesses and IT vendors are embracing in an effort to control energy costs, comply with regulations, and become more socially responsible. On Feb. 26, InformationWeek's Green IT Virtual Event: Corporate Responsibility and the Bottom Line will examine where companies are, and where they should be, with their green computing initiatives. To learn more, and to register, visit the event Web site.

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