Google quits smart meters. Anyone care?

Who doesn’t pat themselves on the back when Google puts money into their industry? Ah, the giant likes this market. I must be on the right track!

So what does it mean now that Google has announced it will retire its Google PowerMeter because it didn’t catch on? Are all those companies who are investing in smart grid on the wrong track?

Clearly not. Google had star quality in the market. But other, more boring companies continue to pursue tremendous smart energy innovation, and they do so with strong government backing.

The energy entrepreneurs are out of the barn, as they’ve never been before. Here are just a few intriguing advancements that made the news around the time Google said that it was quitting the race.

  • Echo is a solar energy system that its makers say is three times more efficient than a basic solar electric photovoltaic system. Echo does this by capturing and using the excess heat generated by solar panels, giving the panels a dual purpose – they generate electricity and provide thermal energy. And there is more, according to C.R. Herro, vice president of environmental affairs for Meritage Homes: “Echo not only sets the standard for energy generation, its advanced technology lets us communicate the benefits of solar to our homebuyers.  When we show homebuyers that they can use their mobile phone to monitor their home – and act as a remote control for their thermostat they don’t want to settle for anything else.”
  • Intel is offering Tech Wonders, which features a free app that lets you donate to researchers your computer’s power when it’s idle. When you are away from your desk, your computer contributes its spare processing power to a massive environmental model intended to forecast climate conditions in the 21st century.
  • The IBM Intelligent Operations Center for Smarter Cities helps cities anticipate problems, respond to crises, and better manage resources. The technology infuses digital intelligence into municipal operations through one central point of command. This can help cities make best use of various resources, including roads. Drivers get real-time traffic information across multiple areas so that they can choose the best route to travel and save gasoline. The IBM system also can help save energy in buildings. It integrates on a common network their heating, air conditioning, lighting, communications, security and maintenance systems. With the help of thousands of sensors, the system analyzes a building’s energy use and provides a real-time view of its performance, exposing its inefficiencies.

What’s the takeaway from Google’s departure from smart grid? Sure Google transformed the Internet with a phenomenal technology. But don’t expect dorm room kids to achieve the same with the very complicated North American electric grid. One killer app is unlikely. Instead it will probably be a myriad of technologies that upend the old way of using and generating power – created by a myriad of companies. And probably few, if any of them, will be flashy enough to have a company name that is also a verb. It will be the work of many that will get us all ‘smart gridding.’

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Comment by David Eggleton on July 12, 2011 at 2:25pm

The trouble with counting on rising energy prices to foment energy retrofits far and wide is that those rising prices will one day, absent manipulation and/or controls (the most likely ones and their probable sequence could be lively discussions), affect nearly everyone and nearly everything.  When energy is no longer cheap, solutions dependent on energy for extraction, refining, manufacturing, delivery (at each step) and installation won't be cheap, if available.

Our good ideas will be out of reach for most. 

Comment by David Heslam on July 12, 2011 at 12:52pm

The ability to track energy use and "see" your savings will not appeal to all, but definitely has appeal to some. I believe it will certainly hold interest for more if energy prices were to rise, as was mentioned below.


Since I'm a energy geek I've tracked my usage on spreadsheets for many years, I have also signed up with many different online services to see what they have to offer. Two of them, Carbon Salon and EarthAid, have come with a novel way around the access issue. These services ask you to provide your online utility account login credentials and agree to share that information with them. If you do so they offer online tools for tracking and examining your use.


They also have tied it into traditional social networking and created relationships with vendors who offer discounts to folks that "earn" points by saving energy.


The void left by Google is pretty large, but I think clever firms like these could do well filling the gap.


The headaches involved in accessing utility bill data have commonly been underestimated

Comment by Robert vanCreveld on July 11, 2011 at 8:54pm

While I am a true believer, most people couldnt care less about their energy use. The only way that people will get interested in looking at how much energy they are using is to raise the cost of energy to the point of deep pain in the wallet. Then people will be interested. 

I am not too keen on the "smart" grid that can reach out and cut my power for whatever reasons. Check out the tv film (5 parts) on masterpiece theatre called "the last enemy"

Comment by Lew Harriman on July 11, 2011 at 5:11pm

Yes, I care. Quite a bit.


I invested in a web-based power monitor precisely because I trusted Google to stick around for a while. The Google data display, while not perfect, is considerably more informative and far easier to scan through time than the web data display of the device I bought so I could connect to Google Power Meter (The U.K.-centric Powersave/CurrentCost meter). Plus, the ability to easily download the data is quite logical and simple with Google, and nearly impenetrable with the sites provided by the device manufacturers.


I don't expect useful services to be free. I would gladly have paid money to continue the Google PowerMeter service. This decision really seems like a lost revenue opportunity for Google.

Comment by Cindy Matthews on July 11, 2011 at 3:06pm
I think the most worrisome aspect of Google's decision is in the words, "It didn't catch on." If a company like Google with all the international attention it receives on an hourly basis can't help energy conservation measures to "catch on", then what hope is there for any other company, agency or government?
Comment by David Eggleton on July 11, 2011 at 2:14pm

In response to Tom's question...

Under the influence of Chris Martenson, I don't believe it's possible.  Sufficient capital won't be available for it.

Comment by Hugh Stearns on July 11, 2011 at 1:08pm

As impressive as Google is for what it is has accomplished, it is almost as impressive what it has botched.  It is almost as if the company were run by a couple of impetuous ADHD kids.  Oh yeah, they are.


Not only is this an opportunity to help achieve considerable energy savings, but, from a business perspective, it is an opportunity to monetize beyond the monitor.  Data gleaned from buildings is easily monotized.  They would have been wise to provide free meters for the opportunity to synchronize with search.  Americans are immune from being spammed, if they get something for free in the mix.  Can you imagine how easy it would be to sell energy efficient appliances if you could send comparison data right to the prospective buyers' email?  Unappealing in a big brother sort of way as that may seem, it would have meant significant energy savings.


So, I guess I am someone who cares, because while others will move this technology forward, Google had two giant advantages.  They had the money, and failed to spend it, to provide the marketing that it takes to launch a new area of technology.  We were all pretty computer savvy when search started and even more so when Google hit the streets.  This is not the case with harvesting consumer usable data from buildings. As much as they talk about scale-ability, they completely missed in here.  And of course the other thing that only Google could have provided is the ability to feed that data into their supper processor.  This is a big setback.    

Comment by tedkidd on July 11, 2011 at 1:00pm

SMART GRID is a bit of a foggy concept to me.  I imagine it to mean device control to optimize power plant output and avoid brown/blackouts.  Kinda a yawn to most.


What appeals to me is the tracking.  Hard to improve what you don't measure.  Tracking burden for homeowners is clearly greater than the perceived benefit of tracking.  Probably greater than the actual benefit. Think about how easy mileage tracking is for automobiles, how many people bother with that?   


To me the real benefit of a smart grid is it allows people to see, in a very lightweight way, their energy consumption and consumption trends.  If it's easy people will start keeping track, become engaged and excited about energy efficiency improvements.  The reward is not in the savings, it's in the seeing savings.  


Unfortunately it is incredibly difficult to access data from energy companies.  I think Microsoft and Google underestimated how difficult this key component would be.  

Comment by Tom Strumolo on July 11, 2011 at 12:44pm
I've had 37 years to make similar observations, professionally, and I don't believe there is an end in sight.  A smart grid is just about the only thing we don't have to worry about, on the demand side.  If we can all keep repeating the mantra "smart buildings, then smart occupants, then smart grid" we'll keep focused on the work that really needs to get done.  Like smart envelopes!  Can we first get the missing insulation into the 10 million all-electric homes that have needed for 3 decades.  By the way, I'm looking for a reasonable count of American homes with plenty of leaks and missing or inadequate insulation.  I'm guessing if we wanted to work our way down that list it'll take a while - like near the bottom is # 110 million.  Is it possible?

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