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 Google.org, 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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The panelists acknowledged that retrofitting the nation’s power grid will be a slow ship to turn. Adrian Tuck, CEO of smart-grid startup Tendril, said he thought 10 years would be a reasonable timetable to get most American households on the new system.

[cob:Pull_Quote]Any such estimate is of course contingent on the Department of Energy administering funds like those provided in the stimulus bill efficiently, a prospect which met with hearty skepticism from many of the panelists.

The dream of a smart grid, where every household appliance is networked and able to communicate with the power grid, and consumers can do things like adjust their thermostats using a mobile phone, rests on universal Internet connectivity.

A Web-based monitoring system like Google’s PowerMeter would clearly benefit from greater broadband adoption, a long-simmering policy initiative that also received a healthy serving of stimulus money.

But there is a wide middle-ground between a hyper-connected smart grid and the current electricity model, which advocates of reform are fond of noting would look very much the same to Thomas Edison were he to come back to life.

“I don’t want be sort of metaphysical about this, but the smart grid is not a thing,” said Ron Binz, chairman of the Colorado Public Utilities Commission. “It’s more of the application of today’s information technology to a thing, which is our grid.”

Several utility companies have been undertaking trial programs giving households monitoring devices to keep closer track of their energy usage. Technology from GE or from the numerous startups like Tendril or Powerkuff playing in the space does not necessarily need a high-octane broadband connection to work. Some standalone devices can tap into the grid to give detailed information about the modulating costs of energy.

Since much of that information is not particularly data-intensive, unlike, say a streaming video, it could travel over existing electrical lines. That revisits the years-old notion of broadband-over-power lines, which never gained much of a foothold in a market now dominate by high-speed cable and telecom networks. But BPL technology could handle the minimal data transmissions that would be needed to set up the most basic two-way communications between a household and the power grid.

Regardless of what sorts of communication lines the information is traveling over, or how small the individual data rates are, putting the energy usage of the entire country on a the Internet could weigh heavily on the technology backbone of the smart grid.

“That’s something that we know a little about here at this company,” said Google’s Lu. “That’s probably where we can have some very positive benefit here. We are pretty good at providing access to literally tens of millions — hundreds of millions — of consumers that are accessing it at the same time, even though the data rates are very low per consumer. And that’s where we think we can help out.”

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