It’s sad that Google has abandoned PowerMeter, but not surprising. Their conviction for the product has been waning for months now, and I publicly predicted they'd dump it in my energy feedback devices talk at the ACI Conference back in March.

Smart writers like Martin Lamonica at CNET and Katie Fehrenbacher at Earth2Tech have written good pieces analyzing the why.

But I have a slightly different take: Google PowerMeter was smothered into obscurity by the utilities. While Martin touched upon this in his follow-up post yesterday, "Drawing Lessons from Powermeter's Demise," and Tendril briefly mentioned it in their farewell to Powermeter, I believe that the utility issue is far more important than most are willing to concede.

First, because the utilities' refusal or inability to provide real-time energy information to customers via smartmeters is a bigger deal than many of us think; and second, because electricity is the easiest of the energy sources to monitor. We've long argued that incorporation of other energy sources, including heating oil and natural gas, will be crucial for energy monitoring to be truly effective; as I recall a 2009 conversation with Dan Reicher -- then Google's energy czar and Powermeter champion -- about his difficulties procuring any interest at all for potential partnerships in the natural gas sector, it seems a chilling bit of foreshadowing. Apparently energy executives, particularly those outside the electricity sector, simply aren't ready to loosen their grip.

 

Effective "Energy Analytics" Requires Real-Time Data.

To give a sense of why the real-time data issue is so important, a little history. It’s not surprising that an internet search company would be attracted to energy data. For all the same reasons that those of us in the internet business thrive on data (with Google Analytics as our source), it was only logical that we’d pine for the same level of granularity around energy. I originally called it Google Energy Analytics in a 2008 post.

The difference, which has proven in hindsight to be a much larger one than anyone might have realized, is that the source of web analytics is a snippet of javascript on web pages. This makes retrieving the data easy, and therefore ubiquitous. And there’s virtually nothing about a website that Analytics can’t measure.

The equivalent of that snippet of code, in the energy world, is some kind of device that records kilowatt hours (for electricity) or a flow rate (for natural gas) or on-time multiplied by flow (for heating oil). Sources for this data, that could then feed a robust analysis tool like PowerMeter was originally conceived to be, proved to be much more difficult to obtain than anyone had originally anticipated.

Data for electricity (always the easiest, and therefore first, energy source to be tackled) is available from two sources: a home energy management device such as an eMonitor, or from the meter owned by the utility delivering the electricity. The array of private devices available to consumers continues to grow, and recent reports indicate this market will be large. But these devices have their own data analytics, and virtually every one of them provides better and more information than one got from connecting the device to Google PowerMeter. The only real advantage that PowerMeter had was that it was internet accessible via your iGoogle page, and this advantage was short lived as many of the device makers added smartphone apps and other ways to access energy information.

But the real story, in my opinion, stems from the resistance of the utilities to give their customers access to real time energy information

Reluctant Utilities.

 

PowerMeter originally launched with only a handful of utilities, many not in the United States. The one early adopter, not surprisingly from a de-coupled market, was San Diego Gas and Electric (SDGE). But from the start, the reluctance or inability of utilities to provide realtime information to customers meant that PowerMeter's value was severely compromised. 

In the SDGE implementation of PowerMeter, it was not real time: customers didn't have access to their data until 24 hours later. And those 24 hours might as well have been the 30 days you typically wait for your bill. Real time data is critical. It means that customers have access to energy being consumed right NOW--and this is the knowledge that enables homeowners to do something about it--like turn off the lights accidentally left on in the basement playroom. There is little you can do about what happened yesterday. Enabling significant behavioral change demands real time. 

Natural Gas, Heating Oil, and Even More Reluctant Utilities.

With respect to other energy sources, the utilities played rope-a-dope. As I mentioned above, Dan Reicher, then Google’s energy czar and PowerMeter champion, told me in the fall of 09 that he was struggling to drum up interest from natural gas execs for partners for gas monitoring.

 

While electricity data is interesting, useful, and actionable, the truth remains that a sizeable portion of the average home's energy bills are accounted for by something other than electricity -- water heating and space heating, in particular, are driven largely by natural gas and heating oil. Failing to take these into account when monitoring a home's energy consumption paints an incomplete picture for most homeowners, making it all the more difficult to market a product with an incomplete set of information. 

More Difficulties Ahead? 

So, despite all of Google's good efforts (remember that this was a zero revenue project of Google.org, and I believed them when Google said they had no intention of monetizing PowerMeter) the end result was some compromised energy data that, well, just wasn't very interesting or valuable. You can understand why the company dedicated to organizing the world's information would lose conviction for a limted set of data that is hard to get from reluctant partners. 

But there's also a larger story here too. PowerMeter's demise is a skirmish in the larger smartmeter battle about real time energy data vs after-the-fact energy data. As smartmeters roll out, and consumers learn that they don't provide real time information, we can expect the data issue to continue to be a flashpoint. 

Does all this mean that utilities are inherently sinister or bad-intentioned? I'm not saying that. But in today's changing energy landscape, as utilities make the tedious transition from powerline-maintenance companies to information-management/customer-service companies, it seems that they're simply not yet equipped to deal with the demands of more well-informed customers. For the sake of our economy, our security, and our environment, we do hope that this transition picks up speed moving forward.