Google Taking a Step Into Smart Meter Monitoring
Is this genuine hardware-agnosticism, or naïveté? Google launched a service to monitor residential electricity consumption, without knowing whether smart meters will work with it.
February 10, 2009
Energy conservation begins with awareness. So, on the surface, Google's announcement of its "PowerMeter" service looks like a well-timed move.
"Google wants to build the platform for collecting, managing, and analyzing home energy information for… well, if they have their way, for everybody on earth," said analyst Jesse Berst in today's Smart Grid News.
Google's tail won't wag the dogTo have its way, Google will need grid hardware companies to come to its table. Those vendors are at a big table of their own, with some very large chairs indeed. ABB, IBM, Siemens, GE and several other giants have been working on the smart grid for a long time in Europe, Asia, and now the U.S. Google lacks the history and industry ties to join the fray at the last minute. The politics of the smart grid is far more complex than Google has yet imagined.
Entertainment valueThe essence of Google's PowerMeter is a gadget on the homeowner's iGoogle home page that shows how much energy they are using, historical data, and future trends, based on data from a smart meter. That's a fun novelty for consumers, but power monitoring is a mature technology and commonplace in today's intelligent office buildings. Unlike businesses, most homeowners don't sit around watching the cost of electricity, which accounts for a single-digit percentage of their monthly household expenses. Consumers are more interested in watching the game or a movie on big home-entertainment systems.
Control is missingKnowing about an energy spike isn't meaningful unless you are alerted and can act on it, e.g., postpone the clothes dryer. In smart buildings the monitoring and control functions are integrated, so energy management can be automated. An interim step for residential energy management would be the mobile phone. "It seems likely that technology used in iPhone's user interface will be adapted by vendors for controllers so that the cell phone could show an image of every type of controller used in your home," e-mailed Patti Harper-Slaboszewicz, UtiliPoint's Senior Director of Advanced Metering Infrastructure and Demand Response. Residents could respond to a TXT alert by adjusting the thermostat, for example, from their iPhone -- the same device they would use to turn on the TV or adjust the lighting.
It's even more effective if the PC or your utility can respond for you. This is the essence of demand response, which is of significant value to utilities and will be the inspiration for many "killer apps" yet to come.
Already an open platformWith its software gadget Google is trying to establish a standard that smart meters, thermostats and even appliances will ultimately use to interface with PowerMeter. Google, Facebook and Apple are examples of vendors who have opened platforms and thus encouraged widespread independent application development. But hardware development (meters, thermostats) is much more risky than "apps," and deployment is lengthy. Plus, the smart grid is already being designed as an open platform. And as with every open platform, users will worry about privacy, an area in which Google's track record is practically non-existent.
Announcement take-awaysEventually household electricity costs will rise above the average family's grocery bill, we'll have a choice of utilities, and independent energy providers will interconnect openly with the grid. At that point, residential energy monitoring might be a fertile technology arena. Then the big players, from ABB to Microsoft, won't take a back seat to Google.
Until then, Google's gadget is a solution in search of a use -- software without a platform to run on. At best, the PR may further elevate the profile of the smart grid. At worst, Google could stifle the innovation of small but devoted players who are counting on the smart grid for their future.