Google Inc. (NSDQ: GOOG) has said that it doesn't need utilities or smart meters to bring PowerMeter, its nascent home energy monitoring and control platform, to consumers.
But having eight utilities and leading smart meter maker Itron (NSDQ: ITRI) as partners can't hurt, either.
Google announced those partners Tuesday night on its blog, saying it would integrate its PowerMeter software with their smart meter networks.
The free, web-based home energy interface will only be available to a limited number of customers at first, but Google said it plans an expanded roll-out later this year (see Google Gets Into Home Energy Management).
The utilities – six in the United States, one in Canada and one in India – are all installing smart meters at customers' homes, Google said. They range in size from the large scale, like India's Reliance Energy with 5 million customers and San Diego Gas & Electric with 1.4 million customers, to small rural utilities like the White River Valley Electric Cooperative and Glasgow EPB.
"They all have one thing in common – a desire to serve their customers by providing access to detailed information that helps save energy and money," Google wrote.
That's the premise behind PowerMeter, as well as home energy monitoring and control equipment and software from startups like Tendril Networks, Greenbox, Gridpoint, Control4 and others (see The Smart Home, Part II and Tendril Expands Its Reach in Smart Homes).
Giving customers real-time insight into how much power they're using can help them shave about 10 percent from their power bills, studies have shown. That fact is at the heart of utility plans for home area networks – homes with integrated energy monitoring and control systems, all talking with smart meters via a variety of wireless or power line communications (see The Smart Home, Part I).
But Google and others in the home energy management field have questioned whether they need utilities and smart meters to bring such services to customers.
Google has discussed working with makers of devices that can bypass the meter to read energy use (see Google Looks Beyond Smart Meters for Home Energy Data). Others have pursued alternative ways to communicate the data to utilities (see A Broadband Smart Grid? and Will Utilities or Customers Lead in Smart Grid?).
Tuesday's announcement would seem to put to rest any utility worries that Google intended to bypass them completely, however.
It's also likely to give a boost to Itron. The Spokane, Wash.-based smart meter market leader's shares were up about 3.7 percent as of 11:00 a.m. Wednesday, on top of a 13-percent climb Tuesday, on news that the Department of Energy was boosting the size of grants under its $4.5 billion smart grid stimulus program (see DOE Lifts Smart Grid Stimulus Cap to $200M).
Among the largest of the eight utilities named as PowerMeter partners, San Diego Gas & Electric is using Itron meters for a $500 million, 1.4 million smart meter project. Texas energy retailer TXU Energy uses meters from Swiss competitor Landis+Gyr, and Toronto Hydro-Electric is using Germany's Elster.
Itron spokesman Matt Spaur said the company has established an interface between PowerMeter and its own meter data management software and could replicate it with other customers, but that utilities will be making the call on whether to offer it to customers.
“We see Google PowerMeter as the first of many such new energy services that our platforms will support,” he said. Right now SDG&E is the only customer working with Itron on PowerMeter, but “we're sure that others will be asking to offer these capabilities to their customers,” he said.
As for how PowerMeter will integrate smart meter data, in San Diego Gas & Electric's case, it will bring the data back to its central systems, then deliver it over broadband to customers' computers, according to Hal Snyder, vice president of customer programs.
That architecture is being tested now with a handful of employees, and will next go to about 35 customers for a trial run, Snyder said Wednesday. By year's end, the utility would like to offer it to all of the estimated 200,000 customers that will have smart meters by then, he said.
That doesn't rule out SDG&E looking at other ways to link smart meters and home area networks, he added.
"Some people will like to use broadband and the Google channel," he said. "Other customers will like the choice of using the ZigBee wireless directly," naming one leading communications protocol for emerging home area network pilot projects.
"The home area network vision is one of variability, to give customers choice," he said, though he wouldn't say which technologies SDG&E plans to pursue.
That's a question facing all utilities now deploying smart meters. While smart meters can deliver a home's overall energy usage, getting more details could involve devices in appliances and HVAC systems or on power outlets to measure individual loads.
Snyder did clarify another point that Google has made much of with its PowerMeter program – the idea that energy data should be the property of the customer.
"We agree that this information is the customer's information," he said. "Our big concern is customer information security."
In SDG&E's case, that will depend on the safe and secure communication of data via the internet – a fact that could feed into the debate over how best to secure the flood of data to come from smart meter deployments (see Hacking the Grid: Is Smarter Less Secure?).