Google gets in on the energy business

Google is developing a tool for home energy consumption monitoring, without taking its collective mind off of proselytizing open protocols and standards and user data security.

Utility companies generally form regional monopolies, but evolution in regulatory policies has opened a door for software companies such as Google to get involved. The gradual deployment of "smart meters," -- network-connected power meters capable of maintaining and sharing detailed information about energy consumption -- is one of the major areas of development. Since 2004, for example, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) has deployed more than 9,000 smart meters provided by a company called SmartSynch.

Google yesterday said it is working on a closed beta of its PowerMeter tool, one which provides the consumer with real time energy information derived from the smart meter attached to his house.

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"We believe consumers have a right to detailed information about their home electricity use," Google Engineer Ed Lu said in a blog post yesterday. "We're tackling the challenge on several fronts, from policy advocacy to developing consumer tools, and even investing in smart grid companies. We've been participating in the dialogue in Washington, DC and with public agencies in the US 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 says that there are about 40 million smart meters in use worldwide, and that more than 100 million will be added in the next few years. In 2007, LADWP said the smart meter deployment in Los Angeles had cut overall electricity consumption by 5%, and internal beta testers at Google report appreciable differences in their electricity bills using the PowerMeter prototype.

The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) released a study showing that when consumers had direct access to feedback related to their electricity consumption "in an actionable and timely fashion," they consume less energy and reduce spending.

Google's PowerMeter is still in closed beta, but will be freely available to users with smart meters in their homes, and will eventually be released as an iGoogle gadget.

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