The Google PowerMeter Announcement--the Week in Review

powermetergrab1It's been a week of shout outs to Google in the aftermath of the information giant's PowerMeter announcement and initial tests in some fortunate Google employee homes. PC World trumpeted the meter's potential to instruct appliances directly, suggesting that a dryer might be advised to run itself in the evening, rather than the morning to save energy. Google's own blog put the spotlight less on appliances, and more on consumers saving the earth in its post Power to the People, noting that well informed consumers can be expected to reduce usage by 10 percent which would have the same carbon impact as taking eight million cars off the road.

Bloggers dreamed of energy diet competitions, and warned that Google might trample smaller innovators in the smart metering industry in its dash to provide free access to consumers. Green Wombat struck a slightly less fawning tone than most, noting that we haven't yet heard which utlitites and manufacturers will partner with Google in this enterprise, and that Google is providing its own testimonials about how PowerMeter will save money and the earth in one fell swoop. Red Herring also dimmed the celebrity lights a bit, pointing out that the urgency of google's announcement should be placed in the context of Smart Grid's slow ascension, and the advent of a stimulus package that promises to inject real dollars into the "creaky electricity delivery network" that serves as our current (not so smart) grid. Scientists have wanted smart grids for a long time. This is not all new. Nor, as Earth2Tech blogger Katie Fehrenbacher points out, is the path going to be smooth, as Google grapples with the cultural and technological pitfalls of getting utilities to provide consumers with the information and access they want.

For our part, we've got concerns over who the winner is going to be. Not in the energy diet competitions, or even the device race, but the big picture.  Let's be clear. Today the smart metering market is driven by the opportunity to sell to utilities. Utilities, at least those whose regulatory overseers have switched their financial incentive away from revenue driven by usage, are interested in smart metering that gives them control over individual houses first, and individual appliances within houses second. That's really the ultimate holy grail--that the utility can control when I get to use my dryer so as to avoid peak use times. If there's something in it for me, i.e. a much cheaper price for the power that gravy sucking jeans-dewetter uses if I set it to turn on a midnight, I'm in. But that requires not only a smart meter but also a smart dryer that communicates with the smart meter. Maybe I'll be the first in line to buy that new smart dryer when it goes on sale, but I'm sure a great many of us won't. And the prospects of most cheesy white goods appliances being eligible for a smart retrofit probably aren't so good. Bottom line: it will take some vigilance, as smart metering rolls out, to assure that consumers are the beneficiaries.

Ultimately, if this system is going to work, consumers are going to have to be given more than a lip service role in generating and controlling data.  Given the Google mission "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful" we're certain they will be viewed as the OZ of smart metering rather than the little man huddling behind the screen of smart metering. As we've written a couple times this week, there are good tools like TED, The Energy Detective that are available right now for getting started with monitoring energy usage in our homes.

The good news is that Google isn't pretending to take on this issue alone. In fact, their launch approach was an Obama-esque call for help to make the world better, with an express plea to "Work with us."  We think Google.org has this part exactly right: "[I]t will take lots of different groups working together to create what the world really needs: a path to smarter power."

And we are more than happy to join this effort. Yes, the grid is behind. No, our appliances aren't talking to us yet. But the urgency is real, both from a planetary point of view and a pocket change point of view. And we can get started now. Thanks Google. We're in.

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