Google Gets Smart  

Posted by Big Gav in , , ,

Smart grids and smart meters continue to be the hot area of the energy world this year (whereas the news flow in most other areas I track is pretty slow lately).

The New York Times has an article on Google's first step into the "smart grid" market - Google Taking a Step Into Power Metering.

Google will announce its entry Tuesday into the small but growing business of “smart grid,” digital technologies that seek to both keep the electrical system on an even keel and reduce electrical energy consumption.

Google is one of a number of companies devising ways to control the demand for electric power as an alternative to building more power plants. The company has developed a free Web service called PowerMeter that consumers can use to track energy use in their house or business as it is consumed.

Google is counting on others to build devices to feed data into PowerMeter technology. While it hopes to begin introducing the service in the next few months, it has not yet lined up hardware manufacturers.

“We can’t build this product all by ourselves,” said Kirsten Olsen Cahill, a program manager at, the company’s corporate philanthropy arm. “We depend on a whole ecosystem of utilities, device makers and policies that would allow consumers to have detailed access to their home energy use and make smarter energy decisions.”

“Smart grid” is the new buzz phrase in the electric business, encompassing a variety of approaches that involve more communication between utility operators and components of the grid, including transformers, power lines, customer meters and even home appliances like dishwashers.

The Google Blog has the official announcement - Power to the people.
Imagine how hard it would be to stick to a budget in a store with no prices. Well, that's pretty much how we buy electricity today. Your utility company sends you a bill at the end of the month with very few details. Most people don't know how much electricity their appliances use, where in the house they are wasting electricity, or how much the bill might go up during different seasons. But in a world where everyone had a detailed understanding of their home energy use, we could find all sorts of ways to save energy and lower electricity bills. In fact, studies show that access to home energy information results in savings between 5-15% on monthly electricity bills. It may not sound like much, but if half of America's households cut their energy demand by 10 percent, it would be the equivalent of taking eight million cars off the road.

Google’s mission is to "organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful," and we believe consumers have a right to detailed information about their home electricity use. We're tackling the challenge on several fronts, from policy advocacy to developing consumer tools, and even investing in smart grid companies. We've been participating in the dialogue in Washington, DC and with public agencies in the U.S. and other parts of the world to advocate for investment in the building of a "smart grid," to bring our 1950s-era electricity grid into the digital age. Specifically, to provide both consumers and utilities with real-time energy information, homes must be equipped with advanced energy meters called "smart meters." There are currently about 40 million smart meters in use worldwide, with plans to add another 100 million in the next few years.

But deploying smart meters alone isn't enough. This needs to be coupled with a strategy to provide customers with easy access to energy information. That's why we believe that open protocols and standards should serve as the cornerstone of smart grid projects, to spur innovation, drive competition, and bring more information to consumers as the smart grid evolves. We believe that detailed data on your personal energy use belongs to you, and should be available in an open standard, non-proprietary format. You should control who gets to see your data, and you should be free to choose from a wide range of services to help you understand it and benefit from it.

The NYT also has an article on obstacles to grid expansion and modernisation in the US - Hurdles (Not Financial Ones) Await Electric Grid Update.
Environmentalists dream of a bigger and “smarter” electric grid that could move vast amounts of clean electricity from windswept plains and sunny deserts to distant cities.

Such a grid, they argue, could help utilities match demand with supply on the hottest afternoons, allow customers to decide when to run their appliances and decrease the risk of blackouts, like the one that paralyzed much of the East in 2003.

The Obama administration has vowed to make the grid smarter and tougher, allocating $11 billion in grants and loan guarantees to the task in the economic stimulus package passed by the House last week.

But it will take a lot more than money to transform the grid from a form that served well in the last century, when electricity was produced mostly near the point of consumption, and when the imperative was meeting demand, no matter how high it grew.

Opposition to power lines from landowners and neighbors, local officials or environmental groups, especially in rural areas, makes expansion difficult — even when the money for it is available. And some experts argue that in the absence of a broader national effort to encourage cleaner fuels, even the smartest grid will do little to reduce consumption of fuels that contribute to climate change.

In fact, energy experts say that simply building a better grid is not enough, because that would make the cheap electricity that comes from burning coal available in more parts of the country. That could squeeze out generators that are more expensive but cleaner, like those running on natural gas. The solution is to put a price on emissions from dirtier fuels and incorporate that into the price of electricity, or find some other way to limit power generation from coal, these experts say.

The stimulus bill passed by the House includes $6.5 billion in credit to federal agencies for building power lines, presumably in remote areas where renewable energy sources are best placed, and $2 billion in loan guarantees to companies for power lines and renewable energy projects. The bill also includes $4.4 billion for the installation of smart meters — which, administration officials say, in combination with other investments in a smart grid, would cut energy use by 2 percent to 4 percent — and $100 million to train workers to maintain the grid.

About 527,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines stretch across the United States, most installed many decades ago.

Everyone agrees that more lines are needed. But some industry experts argue that the problem of making the grid greener goes well beyond upgrading and expanding the existing power lines. The grid, they say, was set up primarily to draw energy from nearby plants and to provide a steady flow of electricity to customers. It was not intended to incorporate power from remote sources like solar panels and windmills, whose output fluctuates with weather conditions — variability that demands a far more flexible operation.

The experts say that the grid must therefore be designed to moderate demand at times when there is less wind or sun available — for example, by allowing businesses or residential customers to volunteer to let the local utility turn down air-conditioners in office buildings or houses, when hourly prices rise.

An even more significant problem is that utilities increasingly face opposition to expansion and must fight for years for permits.

José M. Delgado, president and chief executive of the American Transmission Company, which operates in four Midwestern states, said his firm’s last major project, a line of about 220 miles from Duluth, Minn., to Wausau, Wis., took two years to build but eight years before that to win the permits. The federal Interior Department took a year to approve the line crossing a wild river and required a $5 million contribution to a national park, but the one-year delay raised costs by an additional $12 million, for a total of $440 million, Mr. Delgado said.

ArsTechnica has an interview with an executive from smart grid company Trilliant, looking at possible benefits from Obama's economic stimulus program - Can the DOE stimulate the smart grid?.
Although there is plenty of arguing about the specifics, the sheer numbers involved in the stimulus packages working their way through Congress ensure that many federal agencies will be tasked with spending sums in the billions of dollars. At least some of that money will be going to the US electric grid, which appears to be in dire need of all the help it can get. But the money going to the Department of Energy is also being allocated to speed the adoption of smart grid technologies, aimed at providing finer grained control of usage, distribution, and pricing of power in the grid. The allocation, however, is short on specifics, so we talked with Eric Miller, Chief Solutions Officer at Trilliant, to get his impression of whether that money is likely to do any good.

The stimulus bill that passed the House contains $4.5 billion for the Department of Energy to spend on "expenses necessary for electricity delivery and energy reliability activities to modernize the electric grid." Miller said there's a small chance that money in other parts of the package could help. A smart grid involves building a large network of devices to monitor and control the flow of power, and it's possible that some of the money dedicated to expanding broadband could help in this regard. There are also some tax breaks in the form of accelerated depreciation that could benefit utilities, and money in the form of state aid could go to grid projects in some states. Still, the DOE allotment appears to contain the vast majority of the money for the grid.

Energy Efficiency News has a report on a smart meter rollout in Houston - Houston rolls out two million smart meters.
The Texan city of Houston is rolling out two million smart meters over the next five years at a cost of $640 million.

Transmission and distribution company CenterPoint Energy was given the go ahead by the Public Utility Commission of Texas late last year and will start installing smart meters to its customers next month. The smart meters will use eMeter’s EnergyIP meter data management system.

CenterPoint Energy will bear the cost of installation and setting up data management systems, which it hopes to recover through a surcharge of around $3 per month per customer.

Initial trials running since 2006 have been promising and the company believes the smart meters will make it easier for customers to monitor – and reduce – their energy usage.

IT Brief has an article on smart meter development in New Zealand - Gentrack smart metering passes benchmarks.
Auckland-based customer billing and management firm Gentrack says its flagship meter data management product, mDATA21, has proven it can easily meet the demands of the burgeoning smart meter market.

The company, owned by leading metering and measurement business Landis+Gyr Holdings and ANZ Capital, says it has benchmarked its mDATA21software on a single mid-range HP server and can confirm it imports and validates 48 million half-hourly reads from a million meters in less than three hours.

Smart meters have been adopted widely in Australia and also by New Zealand utilities Contact, Mercury, Genesis and Meridian. Only Genesis in New Zealand comes close the 1 million-meter mark, with around 700,000 meters that are being changed to smart meters along with Contact Energy.

The Financial Review has an article on smart meter trials in Australia - WiMAX trial paves way for smart meters.
Utility Energy Australia has undertaken a major trial of a WiMaX wireless broadband network in the Hunter region of NSW, testing technology it says could eventually support a billion dollar intelligent network and smart meter rollout.


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