Googlifying the electric grid

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By Elisa Wood

February 12, 2009

If you showed Alexander Graham Bell cell phone towers, he’d be stumped. But if you let Thomas Edison tinker with our electricity grid, he’d know just what to do — not because of his genius, but because electric transmission has changed little since Edison’s day. Telephone technology advanced; electricity did not. So says the Department of Energy.

Thus, we are now playing catch-up and pursuing a new, smart grid. This means we will incorporate digital technology which, among other things, allows for two-way communication. The grid will speak to us and we will speak back through our actions. The average householder will know the price of power as it constantly changes throughout the day, and based on the information, choose when to buy it.

The implications to society are huge. Like the Internet, which democratized information retrieval, the smart grid opens doors for new control by the common folk, in this case over energy management, now the domain of remote utilities and grid operators. Collectively, we will determine what kind of energy the nation uses and when. In a sense, we all become energy policymakers through our purchasing choices.

So it’s no surprise that Google, whose goal is to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” announced this week that it will step in and help with the smartening. Google is not an energy company, but it understands how to make information retrieval user friendly – and this will be crucial to the success of the smart grid.

John Petersen, chairman of the environmental studies program at Oberlin College, understands this need for simplicity in communicating energy concepts, as he shows in his creation of the Energy Orb. In today’s Energy Efficiency Markets podcast (, Petersen discusses Oberlin’s trial and error in getting students interested in managing their energy use. Initially, the college set up a website that monitored dorm energy use with colorful charts and graphs. But Petersen quickly realized it was too “techno-geeky.”

So taking a page from Ambient’s Stock Orb, a ball that glows different colors to show stock market activity, Petersen developed the Energy Orb. The glowing balls are placed in dorms, so students can pass by and see the buildings power consumption in real time. Red means high consumption, green is low. There is no need to get online and analyze charts. The Orb reveals the immediate truth. Dorms compete against each other to maximize efficiency by watching what their orbs say.

The Energy Orb is just one way we can googlify energy information management. Many other pilot projects are in the works that simplify information retrieval and encourage people to conserve. We’d like to use this space – and our weekly podcast – to feature some of these smart grid experiments. We invite you to submit them for consideration to

Visit Elisa Wood at and pick up her free Energy Efficiency Markets podcast and newsletter.

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About Elisa Wood

Elisa Wood is the chief editor of She has been writing about energy for more than three decades for top industry publications. Her work also has been picked up by CNN, the New York Times, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal Online and the Washington Post.


  1. This is a great effort being made and a perfect collaboration. I’m looking forward to the day when I can login to a Google energy consumption site and monitor exactly how and when my household is consuming energy. That’s the first step to understanding how we use our electricity / water and gas etc.

    Thanks for the info.

  2. The ability to measure is the first step. The ability to capture realtime and historical measurements, then apply those measurements to automatically controlling the local environment through this feedback is the next step. Applying and managing policy is the third-step.

    google can do the software stuff (measurement, management, policy) well, but sensing and controlling requires network-enabled smart hardware…smart breaker boxes, smart sensors, smart controllers, smart endpoint applications – air conditioners, heaters, washing machines, etc. Smart power distribution networks in the home and business will contribute to the efficiencies gained.

    These will be initially expensive, but reduced in price as economies of scale (and the cost of energy) increase.

    I have a friend who has a breaker box power sensor. Gathers realtime and historical data – amperage through each breaker in his house’s main distribution breaker box. He’s able to measure and graph individual circuit usage on a minute by minute basis. A back-end application, then collates presents the information. Using this program, he found that the largest consumer of power within his home was pool pumps. Who’d a thunk?!?


  3. John Shaw says:

    Edison would be stumped, or amazed, if he saw a modern, or even a 1970, substation or energy control center. He would see electronic digital controls and communications equipment, microwave and satellite, in substations.

    Even in the late ‘60s, the power production of some plants was remotely increased or decreased based on demand in their area. Even in the 60’s, some smaller generating units were started and stopped remotely from energy control centers in other cities. In 1960 home thermostats could be automatically turned down at night. Electrical timers, hefty enough to control the re-charging of an electric car, were available years ago.

    These days, my utility (Progress Energy in NC) can control my A/C using a one-way signal from a satellite. Time of use rates, using meters that record two separate kwh readings, have been available. Just as the Dow-Jones average and commodity prices are automatically sent to my computer, the cost of power production could also be broadcast digitally if there were a need for it.

    There are many companies trying to cash in by promoting equipment, particularly “smart meters”, that do the same things as equipment that has been used for years. New equipment is always being developed that is somewhat better than older equipment. When a new product offers new or improved capability, it should be promoted. But we should not promote new equipment based on claims of capabilities that are already available.