Do you ever wonder why the electric bill you receive at home or at your business costs what it does? Most people simply do not pay attention to the amount of electricity they use, but Google (who else?) announced a new tool to make people more aware of their power-sapping ways.
On Monday, Ed Lu, a member of Google's engineering team, announced the company was working on PowerMeter, a software tool which will show consumers their home energy information almost in real time, right on their computer.
"Imagine how hard it would be to stick to a budget in a store with no prices. Well, that's pretty much how we buy electricity today," Lu wrote on Google's blog. "Most people don't know how much electricity their appliances use, where in the house they are wasting electricity or how much the bill might go up during different seasons."
Lu pointed to a University of Oxford study highlighting the importance of feedback in making energy more visible and more amenable to understanding and control by consumers. The report found access to home energy information could result in savings between 5 percent and 15 percent on monthly electricity bills. "It may not sound like much, but if half of America's households cut their energy demand by 10 percent, it would be the equivalent of taking eight million cars off the road," he wrote.
Google is searching for ways to empower consumers on multiple fronts, including policy advocacy, developing consumer tools like PowerMeter, and investing in smart grid companies. Google, along with General Electric, is hosting a "Plug into the Smart Grid" event in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 17. While there are currently about 40 million smart meters in use worldwide (you'll need one to use PowerMeter, currently in closed beta testing), there are plans to add another 100 million in just a few years.
"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," Lu wrote. "Specifically, to provide both consumers and utilities with real-time energy information, homes must be equipped with advanced energy meters called -smart meters.'"
Google PowerMeter, now in prototype, will receive information from utility smart meters and energy management devices and provide anyone who signs up access to their home electricity consumption right on the iGoogle homepage. Google says PowerMeter will be free and says they "hope to work with as many utility companies as possible" to deliver this data to anyone with a smart meter.
Google's adeptness with advanced social networking, demonstrated most recently by the launch of Latitude, is also on display with PowerMeter; Google hints at a feature that allows users to share their power consumption information with others. "Strike up a little friendly competition to see how your energy consumption compares to your friends and neighbors," Google suggests. Though Google has not announced a release date, Google does provide a PowerMeter demo video on the PowerMeter Web site. There, testaments from a selection of Google employees enthusiastically proclaim how PowerMeter enlightened them.
"By monitoring my energy use, I figured out that the bulk of my electricity was caused by my two 20-year-old fridges, my incandescent lights and my pool pump, which was set to be on all the time," wrote Google hardware engineer "Russ."
"By replacing the refrigerators with new energy-efficient models, the lights with CFLs and setting the pool pump to only run at specified intervals, I've saved $3,000 in the past year and I am on track to save even more this year!"
Because of the privacy issues that seem to trail every Google application announcement launch (Latitude, anyone?) Google took pains to assuage safety concerns even before PowerMeter is out of its protoype phase. "No personally identifying information will be shared between Google and the user's utility," the PowerMeter FAQ page reads. "All energy data received by Google PowerMeter will be stored securely, and users will be able to delete their energy data or ask their utility to stop sending data to Google PowerMeter at any time." Google says more information about PowerMeter's privacy practices will be available at time of launch.
However, Lu writes software tools and smart meters aren't enough. Although PowerMeter, which would give consumers home energy information almost in real time, is a start, Lu writes Google believes open standards and protocols should not only serve as the cornerstone of smart grid projects and spur innovation, but also drive competition and bring more information to consumers as the smart grid evolves.
"We believe that detailed data on your personal energy use belongs to you, and should be available in an open standard, non-proprietary format," Lu wrote. "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."