Google.org, the philanthropy arm of the information giant, announced Tuesday that it is developing software that will allow users to monitor their home's electricity use in near real-time over the Web.
The Google PowerMeter prototype, which is currently being tested on 30 of the company's workers, will require "smart meter" hardware that measures electricity use and can transmit real-time data to the power company.
Smart electricity meters have been cropping up on the West Coast lately; according to the San Jose Mercury News, Pacific Gas & Electric has already installed 440,000 of the 10 million meters it plans to have installed by the end of 2011. The economic stimulus plan, approved by the Senate on Tuesday, which authorizes some $4.4 billion for "smart-grid" improvements, includes funding for four million of these monitors over the next three years.
As the Official Google Blog argues, if people could see exactly when they are using electricity and how much they are using, they will come up with ways to save it.
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. Your utility company sends you a bill at the end of the month with very few details. 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. But in a world where everyone had a detailed understanding of their home energy use, we could find all sorts of ways to save energy and lower electricity bills.
The blog post points to an Oxford University study that those with access to their home's energy information will cut their monthly electricity bills by 10 to 15 percent.
Google's PowerMeter pages include testimonials by employees who have been testing the software, which displays moment-by-moment electricity-use graph in an iGoogle gadget.
One Google worker says that she watched her consumption drop by 13 percent after she swapped out her incandescent light bulbs for CFLs. Another says he saved $3,000 dollars in the past year after learning that he was wasting electricity on two old refrigerators and a pool pump that ran constantly (by comparison, the typical US household spends $1,200 annually on electricity). Another says that she used the application to learn that her toaster's dial had been stuck in the "on" position one morning, a discovery that averted a potential fire.
Google says that it will be expanding the test to about 200 employees in the next few months. The company says that it will make the software publicly available when they think its ready.
Google plans to enhance PowerMeter with “social” tools that would allow users to compare their electricity consumption with that of those of their neighbors or friends. And it plans to allow third parties to develop their own applications that would enhance its usefulness. A programmer, for instance, could create a tool that normalizes the data for variations in weather.
The PowerMeter is part of a wider push by Google to influence smart-grid policy so that it can organize the data that such a system would generate. In comments submitted to the California Public Utility Commission on Monday, Google argued that data on personal electricity consumption belongs to the consumer, and that this data should therefore be made available to consumers in an uniform, non-proprietary standard, so that they can analyze it with third-party applications if they want to.
Google is entering a field teeming with smaller companies that are already working with utilities. Tendril, for example, already offers both desktop software and a Web portal that integrate usage history, utility rates and power source information, and control of any compatible devices on a user's home network. The sparse information about its program provided so far suggests that Google's system will be far less sophisticated.
Still, it's possible that these companies may welcome Google's entry to the field. They clearly can provide a more specialized solution than a company devoted to handling all the world's data and, so far, the search giant is saying all the same things those companies have: we need to get smarter about our power use if we're ever going to improve our conservation and integrate renewable power on the grid. Having their message validated by a company with Google's reach might provide everyone in the field with some significant benefits.
Wired's Alexis Madrigal is uncertain that Google, despite its extensive reach, will succeed in the smart-grid business. He notes that smart meters vary widely; some don't track usage in real-time, and others don't even provide data to consumers:
To become the de facto window into your energy usage, Google will have to use their size and weight to bring some standardization to smart metering practices. To do that, they'll need hardware manufacturers to come out with very cheap Google-ready devices and then they'll have talk dozens of utilities into eschewing their own smart meter plans to follow Google's lead.