National Geographic News
An illustration shows Google PowerMeter software on a smartphone.

Google's PowerMeter can show homeowners their real-time energy usage on a smart phone. But the energy monitoring software needs hardware--a hook-up to the electrical power system--in order to work.

Image courtesy Google

By David LaGesse

National Geographic News

Published April 9, 2010

This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

Deep in the dark of the Minnesota night, some appliance was kicking on to rob Ed Kohler of hard-earned cash. He'd look later and see nighttime energy spikes reported by PowerMeter, Google software that monitors home electrical use.

“All the lights were out, but something's cycling,” said the 36-year-old Kohler, marketing manager at a Minneapolis web-development firm. “So I think about it and, aha, figure out it's the refrigerator.”

A 19-year-old refrigerator, a real energy hog by today's standards. It was easy to calculate that a new, energy-efficient model would pay for itself.

Kohler’s revelation is typical of “Aha!” moments that consumers enjoy when they can monitor their energy use, say Google executives. PowerMeter is an early hint at how new technology can give home dwellers more control over their energy use. It was developed by the search giant’s charitable arm, Google.org, which has made energy one of its prime areas of focus. And PowerMeter is free, easy to use and available to anyone worldwide to install.

If only it were that simple.

As software, PowerMeter can’t provide the homeowner with energy use data unless it is linked to the home's electrical power system—and that requires a piece of hardware. But it will take the utilities that deliver electricity to homes years--maybe a decade--to blanket the country with new “smart” meters that can gather and transmit useful data. Then, the power companies must decide how to transmit that data to customers--perhaps through software like Google's that is being tested by several utilities in the United States and Europe, or perhaps through software and hardware being developed by other companies, like Microsoft, Intel, and a number of start-ups.

Utilities cautious on smart meters

From the standpoint of the utilities, the meters raise a myriad of technical questions, not the least of which is just making sure the darn things are accurate. So they are moving forward cautiously. Too cautiously, in the view of Google and 45 companies and organizations that sent a letter to President Obama this week urging that the administration set a goal of giving every U.S. household and business access to “timely, useful and actionable” information on their energy use.

“By giving people the ability to monitor and manage their energy consumption, for instance, via their computers, phones or other devices, we can unleash the forces of innovation in homes and businesses,” the letter said.

The smart meter advocates say if U.S. households saved 15 percent on their energy use by 2020, the greenhouse gas savings would be equivalent to taking 35 million cars off the road and would save consumers $46 billion on their energy bills.

Like a lot of early PowerMeter users, Kohler couldn't wait for smart meters to arrive. He shelled out $200 for a device that measures his energy use, and he installed it himself. Called The Energy Detective, or TED, and manufactured by a small Charleston, South Carolina firm, Energy Inc., the hardware’s transmitter wires directly into a home’s incoming power. (It’s a job the company’s web site suggests might be best handled by an electrician.) The TED has been popular since Google announced it would be the first device that U.S. consumers could buy and link to PowerMeter. Another device, sold by AlertMe of Cambridge, England is available in the United Kingdom.

To encourage the development of more devices, Google last month opened its software to other hardware manufacturers, saying early reports suggest the application achieves its goals.

"It's quite an amazing thing for something, frankly, as boring as electricity use in the home," said Dan Reicher, director of Google’s climate change and energy initiatives. "Everybody learns something and can act pretty quickly."

Meanwhile, millions of other consumers worldwide are getting smart meters connected by their electric utilities. It's a push that gained steam in the United States with federal stimulus money, part of a broad program to add intelligence across the nation's energy system. Still, only about 10 percent of U.S. households have smart meters. And it will take another five years to get even half the nation's households wired, say market analysts at Parks Associates.

Even today, some with smart meters are often blind to the potential benefits. Many don't know they can access the data being gathered on their home energy use, and their meters won't work with PowerMeter or other consumer-friendly software just yet.

Pacific Gas and Electric, for example, has deployed more smart meters than any other U.S. utility, monitoring 5.2 million gas and electric lines in California. The company plans to double that number to cover all 15 million California customers in about two years. Customers one day could get Web and email alerts about high energy use and adjust their behavior -- for example, shifting their clothes drying to the evening. That could save them money if their utility charges higher rates in peak-demand hours.

Worries About Security, Accuracy

"But a lot of these features are some time away," said Paul Moreno, a PG&E spokesman.

For now, residential customers need to go to PG&E's website where they can see the energy numbers. And executives have said they're concerned about working with third parties like Google until common standards emerge for handling and protecting the data.

Further south, a small pilot program at San Diego Gas & Electric is cautiously testing the Google software. SDG&E is also rolling out smart meters, with about 700,000 installed and plans to finish hooking up its 1.4 million customers next year. Later this year, smart meter customers will be able to access their data at the utility's website.

But the advantage of software like PowerMeter is that it paints usage patterns onto a user's Google home page where they're more likely to see and respond to it, says Alex Kim, director of customer innovation at SDG&E. "We think we have a pretty nice website, but we don't think it's going to be their home page," he said.

So far, SDG&E has limited the Google trial to only about 150 customers, testing PowerMeter's security, usability, and utility. Utilities have reason to be careful. Regulators in Texas and California are investigating complaints that new smart meters are miscalculating or wrongly transmitting energy use for some homes.

So Google isn't depending only on the utilities. The company sees equal promise in devices like the TED bought by Kohler. "More are coming, and they're going to be better and cheaper," said Google's Reicher.

Reicher also installed TED in his own Northern California home, which doesn't yet have a smart meter. Besides, unlike the utilities, which typically provide day-old data after downloading it overnight, TED's monitor displays real-time data because it's linked directly to the home's electrical system.

The moving numbers can be captivating, Reicher said. His 6-year-old son watched as he started to make toast. The meter spiked, and Reicher explained the toaster required electricity that came through the walls.

"It was this wonderful teaching moment," Reicher said. "The light bulb went on in his head about how all this works."

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