Google helps consumers get smart about energy's Senior Writer Marc Gunther is blogging from the 20th annual Energy Efficiency Forum in Washington, D.C., an event sponsored by Johnson Controls and the United States Energy Association.

Imagine if you walked into a grocery store, chose the food you want (no price tags), took it home and then, at the end of the month, got the bill in the mail. "That's essentially what we are doing with electricity and natural gas right now," says Dan Reicher, who heads energy and climate policy at Google, which is aiming to change that.

Instead giving energy consumers a monthly bill that arrives after the fact and is hard for even a geek to decipher, Google wants to give them a way to track their electricity use in real time, or close to, through a free, open-protocol piece of software called Google's PowerMeter.

It's being rolled out in cooperation with eight utility companies, six in the U.S., one in Canada and one in India, that feed the software data through smart meters or other devices.

"Just the simple act of getting people information can really change the way they use energy," Reicher says.

The software, for now, tracks electricity use, but there's no reason it can't be adapted to meter natural gas or water in the future. The software can be installed on a Google home page (alongside stock prices or sports scores) or on a mobile device. "You get data, numbers, graphics, all kinds of interesting things," he says.

Making consumers smarter about energy has real potential, especially when it is combined with time-of-day pricing. If utilities (and their allies like Google) can persuade people to use less electricity during summer days when it is expensive and more during off peak hours, they won't have to build as many new power plants to meet peak loads and everyone will save money.

Google employees have been testing the PowerMeter for some time, with amusing results. One tenant in a San Francisco apartment saw unusual spikes in his usage and learned that he was paying for the washer and dryer for his entire building. Another found that her swimming pool pump never turned off. A third replaced old refrigerators in the kitchen and garage and cut his utility bill by 45 percent.

The scope of Google's work around energy and climate is quite remarkable, as Reicher explained. (He's a typically smart Google exec, a former energy investor and policymaker during the Clinton administration.) Google is investing in geothermal energy, doing its own research on solar thermal power, pushing hard for plug-in hybrids and "greening" its data centers. I'm hoping to dig deeper into Google's energy work in a future post.

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