Google's Power to the People Project

Google wants to empower you with the knowledge of how your home appliances consume power. Combining grassroots efforts, "policy advocacy," "developing consumer tools, and even investing in smart grid companies," Google is looking to find ways to make consumers more informed about how they consume power. With this knowledge, Google hopes that people will use the information to find ways to cut back on their energy consumption in order to save money and lower their carbon emissions.

Much of Google's efforts in this arena center around putting "real-time energy information" into the hands of consumers and utilities, with the creation and implementation of "smart grids" and "smart meters." Smart meters already exist in some fashion, and Google claims that there are already "about 40 million smart meters in use worldwide, with plans to add another 100 million in the next few years." Smart grids on the other hand, are very much something still for the future. But perhaps somewhere in the near future, as The Wall Street Journal reports on at least one utility company in Boulder, Colorado, Xycel Energy, which is gearing up an experimental smart grid with about 10,000 customers, where users can "try out many of the smart grid's features, such as monitoring and regulating their energy use through a Web portal." Also, in an effort to help sway public policy, Google sent some very public comments to the California Public Utility Commission yesterday about how California State should "include the following principles in its smart grid policy:

  • Consumers should have direct access to real-time electricity usage information.
  • Electricity usage information should be freely available to consumers.
  • Electricity usage data should be made available in a standardized, open format, freely available to third-parties with permission from the consumer."

One of the tools in Google's arsenal is a software tool called Google PowerMeter. This is an experimental prototype that is meant to "show consumers their home energy information almost in real time, right on their computer." It won't necessarily work in every home, however, as it gets its information from "utility smart meters and energy management devices," which most homes obviously don't have--at least not yet. But at least a few of Google's employees have access to this technology, as Google is testing the prototype with some of its own workers. One of them, Russ Mirov, a Google Engineer, claims: "Over the last year I have reduced my energy consumption by about 64 percent. I've done it without making any significant changes in my lifestyle, and I've saved about $3,000 so far." When more "utilities and independent device manufacturers" sign on, Google will open up the program to more people.

This isn't all pie-in-sky idealism, either, as The Wall Street Journal states:

"President Obama and Congress have declared it a priority to modernize the electrical system, and they've put smart grids at the center of those efforts. An early draft of the stimulus package includes $30 billion for developing smart grids and expanding the use of renewable resources."

Google claims "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." With so much attention these days being focused on ways to save money in the downturned economy as well as ways to lessen the environmental impact of our energy consumption, implementing smart grid technology is a, er, smart decision. These proposals represent some monumental changes in technology, infrastructure, and people's habits, however; and even with $30 billion funding it and Google singing its praises, whether it will ever come to pass or not as a mainstream technology might be a very tough sell for those (such as the utilities) who will have to shell out the bucks to bring it online.