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Googling for the Smart Grid

Green energy
WASHINGTON -- If the hopes for a cleaner, more efficient energy economy are riding on the back of the Internet, it shouldn't be any surprise that a company like Google is positioning itself at the center of the debate.

Here at Google's D.C. office, the search giant co-hosted a seminar with GE to press for emerging smart-grid technologies.

Recognizing that the dream of a dynamic, coordinated power grid is as much an electricity problem as it is an IT problem, the two companies have been working together since last fall to develop smart-grid technologies and evangelize about the energy savings they would bring.

"The smart grid is in essence the marriage of information technology and process-automation technology with our existing electrical networks," said Bob Gillian, vice president of GE's energy division.

The benefits of the smart grid are clear enough. Sophisticated meters would give consumers a clearer picture of how much energy they are using and how much it is costing them. Other technologies like sensors and new software applications could adjust a household's power consumption to go easy on the grid at times of peak demand. Utilities would also enjoy new efficiencies through technologies like broadband metering, and an advanced network could store and distribute renewables like solar energy.

"We believe that by working together as innovative companies and innovative leaders in our industries, with GE being a big energy company and Google being a big information technology company, that we have a real opportunity to help realize that change for consumers and to help lead the way in transforming the way our grid operates," Gillian said.

The discussion was timely. As the panelists were laying out their visions for a new energy regime, President Obama was signing into law the massive economic stimulus package that will direct tens of billions of dollars toward clean and efficient energy initiatives, including $4.5 billion for smart-grid technologies.

Much of Google's work on the energy front has been headed up by, its corporate philanthropy arm. Google's engineers are bringing along a product called PowerMeter, which will enable households to monitor their energy consumption through their computers. It will be freely available to consumers, and Google is currently working to strike partnerships with utilities, government agencies and device makers to promote the technology, which it is still beta testing.

Google, keeping consistent with its philosophy of the Internet, maintains that smart-grid technologies should run on open protocols and non-proprietary formats. Just like open communications networks, smart-grid technologies that were accessible to the developer community would invite a flood of innovative new applications to promote energy awareness and efficiency.

"I think we've seen that having an open system such that outside developers can come in and create more value, create useful services, has really been the recipe for success on the Internet," said Ed Lu, an engineer with Google who is heading up the PowerMeter project.

[cob:Special_Report]Smart-grid technologies invariably raise security concerns, but Lu insisted that security is not incompatible with Google's ideal of an open framework that would court participation from the developer community.

"There is a distinction between a secure system and an open system," he said. "An open system just means the developers can go in there and add things to it, but it can be entirely secure."

For Google, it starts with giving households the tools to keep track of their usage in a more meaningful way. After all, wouldn't consumers be stingier with their energy usage if they saw a meter counting up dollars and cents like a gas pump when they turned on the dishwasher?

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