PowerMeter: Everyone loves a good Google theory

A blog we’ve never heard of raises the enticing idea that there might be more to Google’s PowerMeter software than the ‘Analyze, Save, and Share’ that it is touting. Could it be that Google is considering “crowdsourcing energy”, as more householders install solar cells and are able to put power into the grid.

Admittedly the project is from Google’s philanthropic arm, but the announcement about PowerMeter – software which “will show consumers their home energy information almost in real time” – came just a day or so after Amory B. Lovin’s guest post on Freakonomics advancing that big, centralised power stations have had their day. Lovin writes:

This evolution made sense at first, because power stations were costlier and less reliable than the grid, so by backing each other up through the grid and melding customers’ diverse loads, they could save capacity and achieve reliability. But these assumptions have reversed: central thermal power plants now cost less than the grid, and are so reliable that about 98 percent to 99 percent of all power failures originate in the grid. Thus the original architecture is raising, not lowering, costs and failure rates: cheap and reliable power must now be made at or near customers.

Big thermal plants’ disappointing cost, efficiency, risk, and reliability were leading their orders to collapse even before restructuring began to create new market entrants, unbundled prices, and increased opportunities for competition at all scales.

Google say they’ve been “participating in the dialogue in Washington, DC and with public agencies in the U.S. and other parts of the world to advocate for investment in the building of a “smart grid,” to bring our 1950s-era electricity grid into the digital age.”

But how realistic is distributed energy generation? As one commenter on Lovin’s post pointed out, an analogy between electricity and distribution of computing power and telephony because the latter involve information requiring less and less power:

For that reason you can have as much computing power on your desktop today as Univac had in an entire room in the 1960s. Computers can be distributed because they have become so powerful. But things don’t work that way with energy. A kilowatt is a kilowatt, whether it’s generated in your backyard or at a power station. You can “distribute” generation anywhere you want but you still have use the same amount of fuel or wind or whatever.

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