Smart Energy, Courtesy of Google

Companies large and small are excited about smart metering, but one of the biggest companies to enter the space has been Google, www.google.com, Mountain View, Calif. Earlier this year, Google.org, the search-engine giant’s philanthropic arm, announced the PowerMeter system, designed to help consumers manage their energy consumption.

This week, Google announced the first utility partnerships for the PowerMeter initiative. Eight electric utilities in the United States, Canada, and India will help roll out the technology to consumers. PowerMeter is a Google gadget that lets consumers view information about their electricity consumption over the Web on their home computers. The software requires the use of smart meters, which the eight utility partners are implementing for customers, and which provide two-way data transfer between the customer and the utility.

Google’s partners range from utilities with millions of customers to utilities with only a few thousand customers. The PowerMeter partner utilities are: San Diego Gas & Electric, www.sdge.com, San Diego, Calif.; TXU Energy, www.txu.com, Dallas, Texas; JEA, www.jea.com, Jacksonville, Fla.; Reliance Energy, www.rel.co.in, Mumbai, India; Wisconsin Public Service Corp., www.wisconsinpublicservice.com, Green Bay, Wis.; White River Valley Electric Cooperative, www.whiteriver.org, Branson, Mo.; Toronto Hydro–Electric System Ltd., www.torontohydro.com, Toronto, Ont.; and Glasgow EPB, www.glasgowepb.net, Glasgow, Ky.

Google will also work with integration partner Itron, www.itron.com, Liberty Lake, Wash., for the project. Itron is a provider of intelligent metering, data collection, and utility software solutions.

In the future, Google plans to expand the number of customers and utilities using the PowerMeter system.

In the tech world, everybody used to break into hives at the slightest hint that the all-knowing, all-seeing Google was going to enter their business, providing free tools and doing everything better.
But slowly people realized that Google isn’t the best company to do everything. They don’t always win, and they may well not win here either.

First, where’s all that data going to come from? Sure, Barack Obama’s stimulus plan calls for 40 million more smart meters to be installed, but as we noted last year, the functionality of these little devices varies widely. Some track things in real-time, others don’t.

And they’re expensive. The sensors required to track all of the major appliances in your home would be hundreds of dollars and Google isn’t just going to send you a kit with all of the smart devices.

Absent the data gathering ecosystem, all Google is really offering you is a graphing utility. And we’ve already seen plenty of companies, including the guys who made Flash, offer up similar or better products.

To become the de facto window into your energy usage, Google will have to use their size and weight to bring some standardization to smart metering practices. To do that, they’ll need hardware manufacturers to come out with very cheap Google-ready devices and then they’ll have talk dozens of utilities into eschewing their own smart meter plans to follow Google’s lead.

Or they’ll have to get the government to mandate that Google’s approach is correct. This could be where Google earns its money. Some utilities aren’t really interested in helping consumers cut their usage — what they’re really after is just simply knowing how much power people are using at any given, so they know when they have to fire up their expensive, dirty peaker power plants. Smart-meter makers have responded with products that aren’t always consumer friendly or even consumer facing.

Google, on the other hand, has a vested interest in making sure that information is freely available in real-time and that it can be tied to real-time electricity pricing information. That’s a very consumer-friendly approach — and we’re glad to see someone pushing that agenda.

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