The Deets plays guinea pig for the Google PowerMeter


Want to flip open your smart phone and see how much energy your drafty old home is sucking off the power grid while you're slaving away at work? Want to share that data online for a little "green" competition with the neighbors? There's an app for all that. It's called the Google PowerMeter. It's free, too.

Well, sort of free. It requires a special piece of hardware on which the free software is configured and functions.

Minnesotan Ed Kohler, who's at the helm of local blog The Deets, installed one of the meters a few weeks ago in his home, opting to upload his energy consumption data to Google. He says he can see already how the meter will become "invaluable" as a way to save energy and money through personal energy monitoring and comparing his results to others. 

The meter is just one manifestation of Google's entry into energy policy, and its desire to influence the establishment of a so-called "smart grid" that will upgrade the nation's existing power grid to make it more efficient. A smart grid could include utility meters that automatically report power usage, appliances that regulate their own energy use, and battery storage to handle peak power needs, among other concepts. The White House this week said it was going to use $3.4 billion from the federal stimulus package to fund 100 grants aimed at making the smart grid a reality.

"Smart meters will allow you to actually monitor how much energy your family is using by the month, by the week, by the day, or even by the hour," President Barack Obama said during a recent stop at a solar energy plant in Florida. "Coupled with other technologies, this is going to help you manage your electricity use and your budget at the same time, allowing you to conserve electricity during times when prices are highest."
Why is Google involved? It's stated mission is to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible. Its representatives have testified before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and argued for including smart grid investments as part of the stimulus package. Why energy conservation? Google's philanthropic arm says it wants to use information and technology "to contribute solutions to major global challenges such as climate change and energy security." It says it supports the smart grid concept because it wants consumers to own and control their own energy data -- and share it on Google if they want to. 

Think of it as power to the people. Literally.

Of course, the reason Google's in the information business is to make money. It's easy to imagine ads popping up on one's Google PowerMeter page on iGoogle that advertise energy-efficient appliances and services based on the data that moves back and forth across the network. Is your air conditioner using twice the energy as the neighborhood average? Maybe you need a new air conditioner - and here comes the ad. So far, the company has not used the data for advertising purposes.

In partnership with a company called TED, Google began selling PowerMeter hardware on the U.S. market in early October. (It's already available on a test bass in the U.K., Canada and India.) The hardware attaches to a home's electrical junction box, measures electrical draw and transmits the data. The model that can be configured to display data online costs about $200. 

From the way Kohler describes the set-up process -- clamps on junction boxes, Windows configuration nitty-gritty -- some folks will probably need a little professional help to get the system up and running. But once it's in place, the PowerMeter data will display on any device with an Internet link. With only a few seconds delay on his iTouch, Kohler says he can watch a visual meter change as his home's lights go off, hair dryers are fired up or the fridge kicks on and the energy draw changes. And he says he's a lot more sensitive now about he spends his energy dollars.

The data he sees is presented by TED's proprietary software, but Kohler says he also opted in to the Google software, which allows the information to be displayed on iGoogle. The only private information he had to supply in order to register with Google was his Zip code, and he says he was entirely comfortable with that.

"I'm not at all concerned with privacy" in this case because the service "benefits me," and it's far less risky than the kind of data one regularly supplies online services in order to shop, book vacations or manage bank accounts, Kohler says. The device and software are so new that he hasn't seen any reporting data with which to compare his own, but he hopes more people will opt in so that it's easier to compare his energy use to others.

"The more data, the better the benchmarks" for comparing his own energy draws week over week, or season over season, as well as seeing how he's performing compared to the numbers within his Zip code. But he also sees how the data would be a real security risk if it were narrowed down to streets or specific homes. "You can really tell when someone's not home" by looking at their energy draw, Kohler says.

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