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Google helps consumers check energy use

You would never buy a mobile phone without knowing how much it costs to call people, nor are you likely to buy a car or a cabbage if you don't know how much you'll be shelling out. The price of everything matters.

Everything, it seems, except electricity. Other than the first time we sign up to a utility company, many of us have probably left thoughts about the cost of electricity at the back of a dusty drawer, somewhere near the piles of unread bills. Which is no good if you're trying to reduce your home's energy use - how can you cut down if you don't know how much you're using?

Enter the smart meter. These plug into a home's standard electric meter and show you how much energy your house is using at a given time. Different models work in different ways - some show instantaneous energy use, others are more cumulative - but the point is the same. Just switched on the tumble dryer? Watch that meter spike.

As a way of visualising energy, it works. A report by the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University showed that real-time information on energy use can save people up to 15% of their energy bills. Other studies have suggested savings of anywhere between 3% and 15%.

Now Google has entered the fray with Powermeter, a website tool that receives information from networked smart meters in homes and lets you see and analyse your energy use. Announcing the meter on its blog, the company says:

Google's mission is to "organise 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 US 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 40m smart meters in use worldwide, with plans to add another 100m in the next few years.

The Powermeter is not yet available to use for your home (Google wants to test the meter on its own employees first) but the company is already looking for collaborators to roll out the device and website in pilot programmes.

How this will happen is still up for grabs. A Google spokesperson said there wasn't a one-size-fits-all solution to introducing smart meters and analysis tools in different countries. "Companies from other countries outside the US can get involved. We want every consumer to have real-time access to their home energy use information and any utility, device or smart meter manufacturer can contact us if they're interested."

In the UK, the government has pledged to introduce smart meters into homes and trials have already started in several hundred thousand homes. The final results, not expected for several years, will inform how the meters are introduced and to whom.

Google says the Powermeter is part of a wider plan to push government policy to adopt more smart meters in homes. "If we are going to have an energy revolution, then empowering users should be a fundamental part of that transformation."

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