Google PowerMeter smartens up the electrical grid

Remember the huge blackouts in the Midwest and Northeast in 2003? When electricity use surges, say during a heatwave or a cold snap, strapped utilities have little choice but to restrict electricity, cutting off swaths of homes and businesses in an effort to stabilize a less-than-robust electrical grid. But what if instead, they could let market forces help even out supply and demand? That's the idea behind Google's new PowerMeter, an iGoogle gadget that lets consumers track their energy usage in real time.

According to the Official Google Blog, PowerMeter lets consumers track their electricity usage in real time via their PC. It's not available to the public yet, but internal Googlers have been testing it with some pretty amazing results. One reduced her electricity usage by 13% simply by replacing all her lights for more energy efficient CFLs, while the gadget alerted another to the fact that she had left her toaster on overnight.

Getting real-time information on usage is one thing, but leveraging that information to help stabilize the electrical grid is another. Google says it's hoping that other firms will step up to the plate and build onto the PowerMeter platform to provide even more cost savings and functionality. For example, check out this IBM pilot program that used smart meters and a Web services marketplace to let consumers help set electricity prices based on their personal demand needs (and comfort thresholds) in almost real-time. Similar programs are projected to save consumers between 10% and 15% per year on their power bills--while at the same time alleviating the stress on an overburdened national grid.

Google's PowerMeter is just one piece to the overall puzzle, but it's a key first step in getting the right information into consumers' hands. Another key step is to get more smart meters in homes across the country--and that's where the Obama administration's stimulus plan comes in. It earmarks $4.4 million for installing smart technologies, including next-generation electrical meters that can feed into software gadgets like PowerMeter.

It's a win-win. More jobs for all those smart meter installers, and more fine-grained control over supply and demand, helping to smooth out usage spikes that lead to blackouts and brownouts in the electrical grid. (Maybe there actually are some good initiatives buried under all that pork :-)

For more on PowerMeter, check out the YouTube video.

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