Smart power meters start to arrive

By Felix Salmon
May 20, 2009

Google PowerMeter announced its first partnerships today, with energy companies from Kentucky to Canada participating in the program. I spoke to Hal Snyder, who works for one of them, San Diego Gas & Electric, which has recently started installing what it calls “smart meters” in 1.4 million homes in southern California. It’s up to 10,000 now, hopes to get more than 200,000 by the end of the year, and have everybody installed by 2011.

Any of SDG&E’s customers can get their electricity-usage information from the utility’s own website, but now they’ll have the option of getting it straight from Google instead, embedding it on their iGoogle home page, that kind of thing. And the more they see how much energy they’re using, the less they’ll use — a 5%-10% reduction up-front, with more down the road when they start replacing appliances and light bulbs and the like.

None of this comes cheap: SDG&E is spending $500 million on this scheme, or about $350 per installed meter, but reckons it’s worth it in terms of hitting conservation goals, improving system reliability (they don’t need to wait for phone calls any more to know that power’s down in a certain area), and even obviating the need for new sources of power if and when variable pricing is introduced and moves consumption away from peak time and into the night time and evening.

The question is what happens for those of us who don’t have such an enlightened energy utility. Will we pay $350 to Google for a gizmo which does something similar? Since it’s Google.org, the philanthropic arm of the company, will they subsidize it somehow? Or should we just start lobbying our legislators to make smart metering happen nationwide? (I’m unclear on the degree to which such things are part of the stimulus plan.) In any event, the quicker this happens, and the more people that get this information, the better off we’ll all be.

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