Google's PowerMeter. It's Cool, but don't Bogart My Meter Data

Last week I read this piece in the New York Times about Google’s PowerMeter, their entry into the smart meter game. The story was picked up in quite a few places but neither the NYT piece or related articles from other outlets expanded much on Google’s underlying press release. Google’s FAQ isn’t very satisfying either; it has no depth so I didn’t really know what to make of it. When I finished reading it I was left with an inchoate unsettled feeling and then I forgot about it. But on Friday evening I had a random conversation about it with a colleague who works in the meter data management (MDM) space. By the time we were through talking about what Google might be doing I had arrived at a position of love / hate. I’ll explain the love first.

In terms of the attention this brings to energy consumption at the household level, I really love what Google is doing with this initiative. As they put it:

“But smart meters need to be coupled with a strategy to provide customers with easy access to near real-time data on their energy usage. We’re working on a prototype product that would give people this information in an iGoogle gadget.”

I agree completely. It’s not exactly the same thing, but I’ve been amazed by how much my behavior behind the wheel changed once I started leaving average mpg permanently visible on my car’s dashboard display. In short order I went from speed racer wannabe to one of those guys that gets harassed by co-workers for driving too slow. “Hey, can you hypermile on the way back from lunch? I’m starving.”

While I am not sure that a gadget on the web will have the same right-there-in-front-of-my-eyes impact that my car’s LCD display has, I’m convinced that Google has hit on something important. After all, today most of us have no idea how many kilowatts we use, what we use them for, or how much we’re paying per kilowatt. We use power in our homes the way I used to drive my car.

Unfortunately, Google’s FAQ doesn’t really answer any questions about how the service works. But from statements like “Google is counting on others to build devices to feed data into PowerMeter technology” we can deduce that Google is proposing to correlate the total power reported by your smart meter with the data collected from individual loads inside the home. This is really cool, because not only does it make the information more generally accessible to you (in an easily accessible gadget), it proposes to tell you what it is in your house that is using that power, and when.

Google can do this because many national and state governments have begun to mandate smart meter programs. Most of us will probably have one on the side of our house pretty soon (especially if the stimulus bill speeds things up). Smart meters improve on their predecessors by automating meter reading, reporting consumption in intervals (typically 15 minutes), and they can send “last gasp” failure notifications in the event of power outages.

But, just like their dumb ancestors, they will be owned by the utility. This means that the data generated will ultimately be under control of the utility and hosted in their systems. The meter will talk to a utility data collector and from there its data will enter the utility’s MDM system. The MDM will do a bunch of stuff with the data. However, from the point of view of you, the consumer, it will primarily send it to the billing system which will now be able to account for time of day pricing. Also, it will send those last gasp signals to the outage management system so that outage reporting will be automatic. This will make analysis and response faster and more accurate. Google appears to be leveraging their position and market power to make deals with the utilities to access that data on our behalf.

The biggest reason for smart meter initiatives is demand management. The utilities have to carry expensive excess capacity so that they can meet peak loads. If they can use interval metering coupled with better pricing and feedback systems, they may be able to change our usage patterns and smooth that load which will reduce the necessary peak capacity overhang. Also, as alternative energy sources with less predictable availability like wind power come on line the utilities will need more “load shaping” options. Ultimately they might be able to reach directly out to your smart appliances and turn them off remotely if they need to.

The laws that are mandating smart metering are focused on this demand side management. Practically speaking, most utilities will close the consumer feedback loop by offering a simple portal on the utility’s web site that will let you monitor your usage in the context of your bill. However, this isn’t the part of the system the utilities are excited about. The hardware and the meters are the sexy part. The contracts to build the consumer portals are probably going to go to low cost bidders who will build them exactly to low band pass requirements. In some cases they may provide provisions for customers to download historical data into a spreadsheet if they want to. A few enterprising customers will probably take advantage of this feature, but this is the hard way to do the kinds of correlations Google has in mind.

What should be apparant by now, is that the government is mandating a good idea, but they are mandating it from a utilty-centric rather than customer-centric point of view. There is naturally some overlap between utility and customer interests, but they are not identical. The utility is concerned about managing capital costs. They look at the interval data and the customer portal as a way to influence your time-of-use behaviors. They really don’t care how much power you use, they just don’t want your demand to be lumpy. On the other hand, we just want our bills to be low.

So, Google’s initiative offers to take your data from the utility, combine it with data coming from devices in your home, and visualize it much more you-centrically. There offering will do a better job than the utility’s portal illuminating structural efficiency problems in the home as well as usage pattern problems once utilities start implementing variable pricing. In short, while the utility is attempting to influence your “when I use it” decision making, Google is offering to help you make better “what I plug in” decisions along with the stuff the utility cares about.

So, what’s not to like?

Google needs two distinct sources of data to make this initiative work. They need access to your data via the utility that owns your smart meter. Plus they need data from equipment manufacturers that are going to make your appliances smart or provide your home automation gadgets. It doesn’t bother me at all that they get this data, as long as the utility makes it available for anyone else that might be able to innovate with it too, including me. You never know, I might want to use it for a home made gadget that sets up an electric shock on my thermostat any time my last eight averaged readings are above some arbitrary threshold, you know, just to make me think twice before turning it up.

The little bit of info that Google provides on this initiative is at their .org domain, but there is virtually no information about how to participate in data standards making, API specification, device development, or that kind of thing. If you want to participate, you pick whether you are a utility, device manufacturer, or government, fill out a form and wait for Google to get back to you. Imagine, the government fills out a form to participate in Google’s initiative. Google has out governmented the government.

As I described already, governments are insisting on demand side management, but there don’t appear to be any requirements to provide generic API’s for meter readings or meter events. It’s enterprise thinking rather than web platform thinking and we run the risk of your data being treated like utility “content.” “In other news today HBO struck an exclusive deal with XYZ electric for all of their meter content, meanwhile Cinemax surprised industry watchers by locking up ABC Electric. As was reported last night, all of the remaining utility’s signed with Google last week.”

I’m guessing that Google is probably following the same pattern that they are using in the transit space and making (exclusive?) deals with the utilities to consume your data. You’ll have to log into the utilty portal to approve their access (or check a box on your bill). But Google, or other big players that can afford to buy in, will probably be the only choice(s) you have. There is no evidence on that they are trying to create an eco-system or generalized approach that would let you, the owner of the data, share it with other value added service providers. If the utilities implement this under government mandate it will suck. If they install smart meters with stimulus package money and still don’t provide eco-system API’s it will worse than suck.

Any thoughts on how this plays out on the smart appliance / home automation side? Are there healthy open standards developing or is there danger of large scale exclusivity on that side of the equation too?

Google will be more innovative with this data than the electric utilities, I have no doubt about that. But I can easily imagine other companies doing interesing innovating things with my meter data as well. Especially as Google achieves utility scale themselves. If my electric utility is going to create a mechanism to share my data with companies like Google, I want them to make a generalized set of API’s that will let me share it with anyone.

A quick note to policy makers in states who haven’t yet finalized their programs. When you think about what to mandate, consider a more consumer-centric model (if it’s easier, think of it as a voter-centric model). You should be shooting for a highly innovative and generative space where contributions and innovations can come from large and small firms alike, and where no one should be structurally locked out from participation. Don’t lock us into a techno-oligarchy where two or three giant firms own our data and the possibility of innovation. If you insist on widely implemented consumer controlled API’s and a less enterprise-centric model, you will not only encourage broader innovation at the consumer end, but you can use it to enhance competition on the generation side too.

Well, Google isn’t really saying what they are doing, so maybe I got it wrong. Maybe they are about to get all “spectrum should be free” and roll out all kinds of draft API’s specifications for comment. If you think I got it wrong, don’t hesitate to let me know in the comments.

Update (2/17): Asa pointed out in the comments that Google does provide more about their intent in their comments to the California Public Utilities Commission. I missed that link before and it gives some useful hints.

Most interesting is the repeated reference to Home Area Networks (HAN). In the original post I assumed Google was taking current smart meters as a given and obtaining data from the utility MDM after it went through their data collectors. That looks like it was incorrect. Instead Google probably wants your meter to to talk to your HAN via wireless(?) and then on to them from there.

If Google can use their market position to make that data accessible off the HAN rather then from the utility MDM I think that’s a good thing. Mostly because it makes possible the direct consumption and analysis of the data on my side of my home network’s NAT / firewall. I didn’t really touch on privacy considerations in the original post, but given that PowerMeter appears trivial from a computational point of view, I’d much rather run it locally rather than share my every light switch click with Google. If I want to know how I’m doing relative to peers I can share that data then, in appropriately summarized form.

The other point in the CPUC comments is this statement: “PowerMeter… we plan to release the technical specifications (application programming interfaces or API) so anyone can build applications from it.”

This is great, but I would love to see the API’s sooner rather than later. They aren’t really PowerMeter API’s after all, if I’m reading the situation correctly, these are proposed API’s and data specifications for smart meters and smart devices. The API’s that Google (and others) will be consuming, not the ones they are offering. If a whole ecosystem is going to be enabled through those API’s, then the ecosystem should have a hand in developing them.

In summary, if Google manages to create a level playing field for the development of an ecosystem based on this data, I’ll applaud them. Some people will use their service and, like they do with other Google services, trade privacy for targeted ads. Others will choose other approaches to using the data that provide those functions without exporting as much (or any) data.

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