Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Google, GE, and smart energy

Back in September 2008, Google and GE announced a partnership to explore a smart electricity grid. Yesterday they held a public event at Google’s DC office to discuss their progress and future plans. Dan Reicher, Director of Climate Change and Energy Initiatives at, and Bob Gilligan, Vice President at GE, moderated two panel discussions about energy policy and developing technologies.

The first panel included representatives from a traditional power company, a solar power company, GE’s Ecomagination group, Tendril/Zigbee, Google, and the Colorado Public Utilities Commission. As they discussed their visions for a smart power grid in America and took questions from the audience, the ideas of informing consumers and providing incentives for smarter energy use came up time and again. Google’s marketing video depicted a number of PowerMeter testers declaring that their energy usage was much easier to manage now that they could see the high points and change their behavior accordingly. To paraphrase a famous quote from Lord Kelvin that has been mentioned many times in the context of Bentley’s carbon footprint data collection, you can’t manage what you can’t measure.

Historically, the flow of electricity from generation sites to consumers has been a one-way street controlled exclusively by utility companies. However, with the rise of solar and other renewable energy generation technologies, panelists suggested that this model must change to accommodate two-way flow from other generation sites: Jeff Renaud from GE’s Ecomagination used the term “energy internet” to describe the concept. There should be public API and data compatibility standards to allow for entrepreneurial development, yet enough security measures to maintain data integrity and consumer privacy.

The idea of informing and empowering consumers to be better managers of their household energy usage is certainly attractive from an economical standpoint: homeowners stand to save quite a bit of money by running certain appliances only during off-peak hours, unplugging devices that draw unnecessary trickle current (Americans waste $5 billion a year on parasitic power), and investing in more energy-efficient appliances (like Energy Star). But what about the environment? Off-peak energy usage saves money, but in order to save the planet, we also need to curb our overall energy usage. As the tide turns from blissful ignorance to awareness of energy consequences, we should all be keeping an eye on the big picture, not just on our own checkbooks.

The second group of panelists (utility policy experts) agreed that consumer education and utility company outreach programs could and should be improved. People should know the distribution of power sources in their regional mix: what percentage of electricity comes from coal, nuclear, solar, etc. State and federal policies should require more transparency and disclosure in the utility industry, and not in the format of the pesky “fine print” disclosure documents we all receive from our credit card companies every time rates change. Consumer awareness of home energy performance should be the new normal, especially considering that a house is most consumers’ biggest investment. Panelist Andy Karsner, former Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, praised the Department of Energy for its research and development efforts, but criticized its implementation.

Throughout the discussions, the new stimulus package being signed by Obama that day was mentioned many times. Carol Browner, assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change in the Obama Administration, made a brief appearance before the second panel discussion and spoke about using the stimulus package to invest in bigger, better, and smarter energy technologies.

Let’s hope that this new Smart Grid venture turns out to be just that.

Related link:

Tendril Residential Energy Ecosystem (TREE) article on


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