The internet search giant could become the first online provider of real-time energy metering, a system it says can dramatically cut global electricity use.
Google aims to show a clean pair of heels
The Google chief executive Eric Schmidt's enemies have always accused him of being power hungry and now they have been proved right. But the kind of power Mr Schmidt hungers for is electrical. The internet search giant believes it can dramatically cut domestic power bills while promoting the use of "clean" energy sources such as solar and hydro-electric power by allowing users to monitor energy use in real time.
Google has already developed an energy-use monitoring tool called PowerMeter and is underpinning its clean energy strategy by investing US$39 million (Dh143.24m) in two wind farms in North Dakota, and by acquiring a licence to trade energy on the US wholesale market. Google predicts real-time monitoring of energy use will also facilitate the adoption of electric-powered cars by making them more cost-effective to run.
The search engine's strategy is set to accelerate the adoption of the kinds of clean energy being developed by green energy companies such as the Abu Dhabi-based Masdar. At the end of last month, Masdar signed an agreement with the US department of energy to promote collaboration on clean and sustainable energy technologies. Masdar was not available for comment on the overall impact Google's real-time energy monitoring technology is likely to have on the Middle East energy industry. But it is clearly aimed at increasing the demand for new sources of clean energy and hastening the end of the world's dependence on fossil fuels such as oil and coal.
"This is possibly ground breaking stuff and I can't think of a single other service provider who could do this - but with 'cloud computing', etcetera, this could be the first step into a new world," says David Mayne, a senior energy analyst at Datamonitor. Traditional power-metering technology has not changed noticeably in decades. By harnessing the power of the internet and the data-crunching power of its vast collections of servers, Google believes it is possible to give power users real-time online information on the cost of the energy used running each household appliance.
"Google has the confidence and, arguably, the track record to provide an attractive interface for energy consumers to help them reduce their demand," says Mr Mayne. "Indeed, it would appear to be in a stronger position to achieve this than traditional energy suppliers. However, there is a danger that the company could leave itself open to accusations of hubris unless it treads carefully." But Google believes its work in developing smart energy networks running across the internet will coincide with an end to the car industry's total reliance on oil.
According to Edward Lu, the company's advanced projects programme manager who is also a former astronaut and the veteran of two space shuttle missions, the energy demands of recharging electric-powered cars at the end of each day will vastly exceed those of any traditional household appliance. "You don't want a situation where everyone drives home from work at the same time and plugs in their electric vehicle," says Mr Lu. "We've actually been doing some testing looking into this.
"We have a couple of engineers at Google with access to real-time home information and a couple of them have plug-in cars, and the [energy use] spike is extremely large. One of the uses of the smart grid is controlling these plug-in vehicles." Mr Lu says a usual rise of between 3 kilowatts and 4kw would be caused by an appliance such as a clothes dryer, but charging a car could cause an increase of up to 20kw.
He believes it is essential that household users recharging their vehicles are able to monitor the precise cost of recharging their cars in real time, in much the same way as they can today at a petrol pump when filling their tanks. Mr Lu says the adoption of electric cars over the next few years will coincide with the development of "smart", internet-based energy grids. "Governments across the world should ensure people have real-time access to their home energy information," Google says. "Most of us know little about how we use energy in our homes, other than what our monthly power bill tells us.
"Yet studies show that when people can see in real-time how much energy they are using, they save up to 15 per cent on their electricity use with simple behavioural changes and even more with investments in energy efficiency. "The savings are huge when added up. If all US households reduced 15 per cent of their energy use by 2020 it would be equivalent to taking 35 million cars off the road and would save consumers $46 billion on their energy bills."
Analysts believe Google is in a far better position than most traditional power companies to revolutionise the energy industry in this way. Instead of a legacy IT system designed to generate monthly bills, which is typical of most energy providers, Google has one of the world's most extensive and modern data networks. It also has a global consumer brand so strong that its name has entered the dictionary as a verb.
"The energy suppliers are facing putting a difficult proposition to their customers - use less energy and, due to the investment needed to support the new AMI [advanced metering infrastructure] networks, pay about the same for it," Mr Mayne says. "It's austerity with little economic incentive. You might argue 'what price the environment', but this is very much stick with only a meagre portion of carrot."
But he adds that Google is ideally positioned to make consumers an offer they would find hard to refuse. "It is Google's customer-facing aspect and innovative and embedded interfaces that make it possible that they would be able to work up a solution for end users to engage with energy-saving solutions, but with the minimal impact in their day-to-day lives," says Mr Mayne. "Energy efficiency that takes care of itself is always going to be more successful than a draconian regime that intrudes on people."