Think: did you leave a light on this morning? What if you could pull up your homepage and find out, right now?
As I wrote about last fall, companies from IBM and GE to startups are getting excited about green IT: Managing natural resources using computing intelligence. In the electricity industry, this means "smart grids" that distribute power more efficiently, avoiding peak loads, and home-based smart meters and software to help people measure and control demand in real-time. The Obama stimulus package would provide 40 million US Homes with the meters, but consumers still need a system to see and analyze the information. That's where Google comes in.
Google PowerMeter, now in internal testing, hooks up with smart meters to provide simple, clear realtime graphs of electricity use. You can post the gadget on your iGoogle homepage and share with friends to encourage competition. Studies show that simply seeing your home energy use can lead to savings of 5 to 15 %.
Besides promoting environmental goodness, Google obviously sees an opportunity to enter new markets here. They're investing with smart grid companies, and advocating with state and federal government for open standards and protocols to keep the market free for software solutions like PowerMeter, that are not controlled by utilities. They've partnered with GE and are holding a Smart Grid event together in DC on the 17 (GE ran a cute, if puzzling, Smart Grid ad as their first-ever Superbowl commercial).
By putting more information and thus power in the hands of consumers, the potential is to disrupt utilities' monopoly over the energy industry, the same way the Internet disrupted telecom and media ten years ago. Which makes this a real power move for Google.