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Utility Companies Plug In to Google PowerMeter

Utility Companies Plug In to Google PowerMeter

Google has partnered with eight electricity providers -- six in the U.S., one in Canada and one in India -- to combine smart meters with its PowerMeter software in an effort to give consumers more information about their electricity consumption habits. Smart meters record more information about power use than standard meters and can communicate information with the power provider.

By Jack M. Germain
05/20/09 2:13 PM PT

Google is now field testing its PowerMeter software with over 10 million customers of eight large utility partners in three countries.

Google on Wednesday announced it's lining up energy companies so it can enlist the utilities' customers to start using the home energy consumption software. PowerMeter helps consumers monitor their energy use through data supplied by so-called smart meters deployed by utility companies.

Google first announced in February its intention to give users detailed access to their energy consumption information. The idea is to get consumers to make more informed choices about power usage.

"This program is perfectly aligned with Google's mission of making the world's information accessible and useful," said Kristen Olsen Cahill, program manager for Google.org.

"Right now, you really don't have access to this type of information, so the PowerMeter program is really useful," she told the E-Commerce Times.

Early Adopters

Google will open partnership agreements with six U.S.-based energy companies to test the PowerMeter software's integration with smart meters, which are capable of providing more detail about a building's electricity use and can communicate information with the utility provider. The energy industry is using smart meters as a way to upgrade the power grid worldwide. The smart meter system involves gathering volumes of data about energy usage at business and consumer locations to better manage energy distribution and consumption.

Comprising the first contingent of Google PowerMeter partners in the U.S. are San Diego Gas & Electric (California), TXU Energy (Texas), JEA (Florida), Wisconsin Public Service Corporation, White River Valley Electric Cooperative (Missouri) and Glasgow EPB (Kentucky).

Google also partnered with Toronto Hydro-Electric System Limited in Canada and Reliance Energy in India.

Information Exchange

The basis for the testing is for the trial users to learn about their own power consumption and provide feedback to Google about their use of PowerMeter software, according to Cahill. Google is providing the software for free to both consumers and the power companies.

The software works with all varieties of smart meters. Google has not yet set a date for more widespread release of the PowerMeter software.

"The way Google typically develops a product is getting it out there before it is really ready for launch so we get some good feedback," Cahill explained.

Currently, utility companies around the globe have deployed over 50 million smart meters. Smart meters are expected to reach hundreds of millions in the next few years, Cahill said.

"How the data is used is up to each energy company, but we think that consumers should have access to that data," she added.

Three-Part Goal

Also sponsoring the testing program is Google.org, the company's philanthropic arm. The project is looking for ways to address worldwide challenges with information and technology, according to Cahill.

"So this is kind of a perfect fit in that regard. Studies show that just by seeing your information on your energy use, you tend to reduce your consumption by 5 to 15 percent," she said.

One goal behind the PowerMeter program is to get information about energy consumption into the users' hands. Having these details can help consumers answer questions like, "Why am I seeing huge spikes at 3 p.m. every day?" or "Why am I getting spikes when I'm sleeping?" explained Cahill.

How It Works

The participating energy companies install special equipment in their customers' connection boxes. This equipment transmits and tracks energy consumption data right to the consumers' iGoogle homepage, explainsEd Lu, part of the Google engineering team.

Understanding how consumers can make use of this information and compare it to neighbors and electricity use in other homes is the second part of Google's goal, according to Cahill. This will let consumers know if they are high energy users compared to others around them or are relatively energy-efficient, she said.

The third part is giving consumers tools to help them reduce their consumption.

So What?

Distributing free energy software may be little more than a self-serving gesture by Google, Jim McGregor, chief technology strategist for In-Stat, suggested. It remains to be seen whether there is any connection between educating consumers and convincing them to actually consume lower levels of power.

"This is a notch in the ladder of all the other things ongoing at Google. It doesn't add anything new or change anything for Google. It's just another company that has taken an eco-friendly initiative for an eco-friendly mission," McGregor told the E-Commerce Times.

Google's approach is based on the assumption that if you can see your consumption, you will take steps to reduce it. However, other energy-saving steps, such as properly caulking a house, changing the type of light bulbs one uses, installing passive solar heating systems, etc., involve practical steps consumers can take to lower their energy usage.

"None of this is new, revolutionary or unique. This is just another effort to get consumers to focus on changing their habits," said McGregor. "Unless you're going to let the power company control how much power you draw, it really doesn't change things for the consumer."

Good Concept but ...

The concept behind Google's PowerMeter software is sound, but no new technology is involved, added Jay Chaudhry, CEO of cloud security firm Zscaler. His company provides security solutions to energy grid companies.

"As consumers, we are stuck with whatever technology is in our homes. I'm not sure it is going to change the consumer's inertia," Chaudhry told the E-Commerce Times.


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