Google PowerMeter: Smothered by Utilities?

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By Peter Troast - June 28th, 2011

google powermeterIt’s sad that Google has abandoned PowerMeter, but not surprising. Their conviction for the product has been waning for months now, and I publicly predicted they'd dump it in my energy feedback devices talk at the ACI Conference back in March.

Smart writers like Martin Lamonica at CNET and Katie Fehrenbacher at Earth2Tech have written good pieces analyzing the why.

But I have a slightly different take: Google PowerMeter was smothered into obscurity by the utilities. While Martin touched upon this in his follow-up post yesterday, "Drawing Lessons from Powermeter's Demise," and Tendril briefly mentioned it in their farewell to Powermeter, I believe that the utility issue is far more important than most are willing to concede.

First, because the utilities' refusal or inability to provide real-time energy information to customers via smartmeters is a bigger deal than many of us think; and second, because electricity is the easiest of the energy sources to monitor. We've long argued that incorporation of other energy sources, including heating oil and natural gas, will be crucial for energy monitoring to be truly effective; as I recall a 2009 conversation with Dan Reicher -- then Google's energy czar and Powermeter champion -- about his difficulties procuring any interest at all for potential partnerships in the natural gas sector, it seems a chilling bit of foreshadowing. Apparently energy executives, particularly those outside the electricity sector, simply aren't ready to loosen their grip.

Effective "Energy Analytics" Requires Real-Time Data.

To give a sense of why the real-time data issue is so important, a little history. It’s not surprising that an internet search company would be attracted to energy data. For all the same reasons that those of us in the internet business thrive on data (with Google Analytics as our source), it was only logical that we’d pine for the same level of granularity around energy. I originally called it Google Energy Analytics in a 2008 post.

The difference, which has proven in hindsight to be a much larger one than anyone might have realized, is that the source of web analytics is a snippet of javascript on web pages. This makes retrieving the data easy, and therefore ubiquitous. And there’s virtually nothing about a website that Analytics can’t measure.

The equivalent of that snippet of code, in the energy world, is some kind of device that records kilowatt hours (for electricity) or a flow rate (for natural gas) or on-time multiplied by flow (for heating oil). Sources for this data, that could then feed a robust analysis tool like PowerMeter was originally conceived to be, proved to be much more difficult to obtain than anyone had originally anticipated.

Data for electricity (always the easiest, and therefore first, energy source to be tackled) is available from two sources: a home energy management device such as an eMonitor, or from the meter owned by the utility delivering the electricity. The array of private devices available to consumers continues to grow, and recent reports indicate this market will be large. But these devices have their own data analytics, and virtually every one of them provides better and more information than one got from connecting the device to Google PowerMeter. The only real advantage that PowerMeter had was that it was internet accessible via your iGoogle page, and this advantage was short lived as many of the device makers added smartphone apps and other ways to access energy information.

But the real story, in my opinion, stems from the resistance of the utilities to give their customers access to real time energy information

Reluctant Utilities.

PowerMeter originally launched with only a handful of utilities, many not in the United States. The one early adopter, not surprisingly from a de-coupled market, was San Diego Gas and Electric (SDGE). But from the start, the reluctance or inability of utilities to provide realtime information to customers meant that PowerMeter's value was severely compromised. 

In the SDGE implementation of PowerMeter, it was not real time: customers didn't have access to their data until 24 hours later. And those 24 hours might as well have been the 30 days you typically wait for your bill. Real time data is critical. It means that customers have access to energy being consumed right NOW--and this is the knowledge that enables homeowners to do something about it--like turn off the lights accidentally left on in the basement playroom. There is little you can do about what happened yesterday. Enabling significant behavioral change demands real time. 

Natural Gas, Heating Oil, and Even More Reluctant Utilities.

With respect to other energy sources, the utilities played rope-a-dope. As I mentioned above, Dan Reicher, then Google’s energy czar and PowerMeter champion, told me in the fall of 09 that he was struggling to drum up interest from natural gas execs for partners for gas monitoring.

While electricity data is interesting, useful, and actionable, the truth remains that a sizeable portion of the average home's energy bills are accounted for by something other than electricity -- water heating and space heating, in particular, are driven largely by natural gas and heating oil. Failing to take these into account when monitoring a home's energy consumption paints an incomplete picture for most homeowners, making it all the more difficult to market a product with an incomplete set of information. 

More Difficulties Ahead? 

So, despite all of Google's good efforts (remember that this was a zero revenue project of Google.org, and I believed them when Google said they had no intention of monetizing PowerMeter) the end result was some compromised energy data that, well, just wasn't very interesting or valuable. You can understand why the company dedicated to organizing the world's information would lose conviction for a limted set of data that is hard to get from reluctant partners. 

But there's also a larger story here too. PowerMeter's demise is a skirmish in the larger smartmeter battle about real time energy data vs after-the-fact energy data. As smartmeters roll out, and consumers learn that they don't provide real time information, we can expect the data issue to continue to be a flashpoint. 

Does all this mean that utilities are inherently sinister or bad-intentioned? I'm not saying that. But in today's changing energy landscape, as utilities make the tedious transition from powerline-maintenance companies to information-management/customer-service companies, it seems that they're simply not yet equipped to deal with the demands of more well-informed customers. For the sake of our economy, our security, and our environment, we do hope that this transition picks up speed moving forward.


Comments

Well, this is not good. I wonder how this bodes for the Wattvision and eMonitor services? I wish they'd open-source this stuff, so I could at least use it myself, even if any of these providers fail. Posted by John Poole on Jun 28, 2011 4:09pm

John--stay tuned. Great question, and I've emailed the folks at both WattVision and eMonitor. That said, I don't think all that much has been lost with Google stepping out. While the splash of the entry of such a powerful brand into energy monitoring clearly lit up the market, their severely compomised data set was ultimately....kind of boring. And, while many people thought PowerMeter was the one and only way to access their device-generated data on the internet, this really isn't the case. 

Posted by Peter Troast on Jun 28, 2011 7:13pm
Wattvision provides an API (http://www.wattvision.com/info/api) that you can use to download the data from our sensor. So in that sense we've opened it up to you. Is that what you are looking for? You can also download/export to Excel/CSv. We want to empower consumers with data. Tell us more about the scenario you are trying to achieve. A number of clients / services are already using the data from our sensors. Posted by Savraj on Jun 28, 2011 9:50pm
Hi Savraj! What I meant was that it would be ideal if your software were freely downloadable and open source (e.g., GPL licensing) so I could run Wattvision services on my own server, and possibly extend the software to include other data feeds and custom analytics. But barring all that, the fact that you expose an API and make the data available to consumers is still a very definite plus for Wattvision. ~John Posted by John Poole on Jun 29, 2011 12:37am

John--also want to point out, with respect to WattVision, that their base offering does not require a monthly service fee, and with that you still get full data download capability plus the API Savraj mentions above. 

Posted by Peter Troast on Jun 29, 2011 12:41pm
Oh, I'm aware of all that. I'm not criticizing the product, nor the service. Basically, the geeky, open-source developer side of me is simply saying "I realize that a service provider model works best for 99% of customers, but for me, self-hosting is a lot more fun" (of course, that's also how I get myself in a lot of trouble). But I think Wattvision is a great product! Posted by John Poole on Jun 29, 2011 4:40pm
We have open sources all our hardware and firmware at smartengygroyps.com, and we have an open API for data related services. We offer kits and all the stuff people need to build their own multiple channel smart meter, plus we allow people to share their information and learn. This may be something of interest? Sam, @samotage Posted by Sam Sabey on Jun 30, 2011 9:49pm
Well, if they allowed others to compile a separate source of usage data, then they could be audited...and that would be bad. I suspect they wish to continue the monopoly and sole source ownership of their smartmeter data so that they remain judge jury and executioner of what the facts are or aren't regarding what you owe them. Nice huh? Posted by Anonymous on Jun 28, 2011 6:17pm

Don't know who you are, anonymous, but you are spot on. 

Posted by Peter Troast on Jun 28, 2011 7:14pm
I eluded to this with a comment on the GigaOM article on the 24th and the post was deleted. Nice. Thank you, Peter, for the compliment and it all boils down to Utility Rule#1: if the utility does not control or own it, it shouldn't exist. Posted by Tesla_X (aka-Anonymous) on Jun 28, 2011 9:26pm
Peter, What is your take on Standby fees (the cogen tax came back this June), AB 1613 (export of excess electricity from cogen) or PG&E's proposal to suspend Rule 21? Plenty of temperamental utility activity to cover here... Posted by Tesla_X on Jun 28, 2011 9:49pm

@Tesla_X--sorry, I'm not following CA closely enough to have an informed opinion on this, but curious nonetheless. 

Posted by Peter Troast on Jun 29, 2011 12:45pm
But access to realtime smart-meter data doesn't compromise their conspiracy. ;) It's still the same meter, it won't tell you anything new, or allow you to audit anything at all. And abandoning Google PowerMeter doesn't stop the TEDs, Brultechs, eMonitors, and Currentcosts of the world from doing just what you say (3rd party device audit). So I'm not quite sure what you are implying here? Posted by Eric on Jun 29, 2011 4:59pm
Direct wireless consumer access to meter data is available from millions upon millions of existing AMR-equipped meters, including electricity, gas, and water. Grid Insight has been working on a simple, inexpensive device (<$50 retail) to open up this data and is working on partnerships to reach market scale. When we talked to the Google PowerMeter team, they showed little interest in promoting this enabling technology. I will speculate that it was for fear of reprisal from the utilities and metering companies. Also, don't forget to mention PlotWatt and Pachube when you mention Wattvision and eMonitor. Each has something unique to provide. Posted by Greg on Jun 28, 2011 7:47pm

Point taken, Greg. I agree that PlotWatt and Pachube are VERY interesting. 

Posted by Peter Troast on Jun 28, 2011 7:59pm
So - why don't the utilities want users to have fine-grained usage data? Why would they want to control this? What is the downside for them? There seems to be lots of insinuation that they won't "give this up" but I don't understand why they would care one whit. (Now, as for the independent monitoring of their meters with 3rd party hardware, that is interesting... someone should poll all the TED users and see how their TED numbers compare to their utility numbers...) Posted by Eric on Jun 29, 2011 4:52pm
Is it possible that the utilities aren't stonewalling out of malice, but because they don't know how to handle the data? Anyone who's ever requested data from a utility can attest to this. Or perhaps they fear there's more value in the data than they understand today? While I agree real-time data is valuable for behavioral change, I think there's another big bucket of energy waste that can utilize day-late information. Most of us have systemic waste at home (improperly tuned HVAC, dirty refrigerator coils, a pool pump that runs constantly) and these can be addressed with good analytics even if you don't know what's happening right now. They tend to be one-time fixes with a big payoff. Posted by Firefly Ecometrics on Jun 30, 2011 12:39pm

@Firefly and @Eric: Yes, I tried to make the point that the utilities aren't sinister per se, but struggling with both the volume of data and, perhaps more importantly, with the customer service implications of a more informed customer base. The uproar in PG&E when the first smartmeters went in exemplifies this. Imagine when there are two sets of data--one from the bill and another from a third party device. Valid or not, the assumption that the utility is overcharging is deep seeded.

On the issue of the value of day old data, I agree to a point. For the major appliances and systems, real time is less critical. If something's not functioning properly, or is old and needs replacement, monitoring will flush this out quickly provided you can parse the performance of individual circuits. But once that low hanging fruit has been harvested, it quickly becomes all about the....damn humans. In our household, with so much of the base load of appliances, lighting and phantom loads reasonably under control, it's all about behavior. And, at that point, real time data means everything. 

Posted by Peter Troast on Jun 30, 2011 1:04pm
My last job was for the energy department at a major university. We ran our own power plant, electric grid, and chilled water system, and we did the metering and billing for campus customers. As a microcosm of the utility world, I can tell you that you're right about customer perceptions. We really wrestled with providing real-time meter data in a way that customers would understand. The fear was always that variation in billing period, or even the time frame for averaging and accumulating energy use, would cause a discrepancy and an uproar. Though we had no incentive to play tricks with metering, it was often easier to just keep the data private and avoid the whole conversation. Posted by Firefly Ecometrics on Jun 30, 2011 2:02pm

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