Googlifying the electric grid

Feb. 13, 2009
By Elisa Wood February 12, 2009 If you showed Alexander Graham Bell cell phone towers, he’d be stumped. But if you let Thomas Edison tinker with our electricity grid, he’d know just what to do — not because of his genius, but because electric transmission has changed little since Edison’s day. Telephone technology advanced; electricity […]

By Elisa Wood

February 12, 2009

If you showed Alexander Graham Bell cell phone towers, he’d be stumped. But if you let Thomas Edison tinker with our electricity grid, he’d know just what to do — not because of his genius, but because electric transmission has changed little since Edison’s day. Telephone technology advanced; electricity did not. So says the Department of Energy. http://www.oe.energy.gov/1165.htm

Thus, we are now playing catch-up and pursuing a new, smart grid. This means we will incorporate digital technology which, among other things, allows for two-way communication. The grid will speak to us and we will speak back through our actions. The average householder will know the price of power as it constantly changes throughout the day, and based on the information, choose when to buy it.

The implications to society are huge. Like the Internet, which democratized information retrieval, the smart grid opens doors for new control by the common folk, in this case over energy management, now the domain of remote utilities and grid operators. Collectively, we will determine what kind of energy the nation uses and when. In a sense, we all become energy policymakers through our purchasing choices.

So it’s no surprise that Google, whose goal is to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” announced this week that it will step in and help with the smartening. Google is not an energy company, but it understands how to make information retrieval user friendly – and this will be crucial to the success of the smart grid. http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2009/02/power-to-people.html

John Petersen, chairman of the environmental studies program at Oberlin College, understands this need for simplicity in communicating energy concepts, as he shows in his creation of the Energy Orb. In today’s Energy Efficiency Markets podcast (www.realenergywriters.com), Petersen discusses Oberlin’s trial and error in getting students interested in managing their energy use. Initially, the college set up a website that monitored dorm energy use with colorful charts and graphs. But Petersen quickly realized it was too “techno-geeky.”

So taking a page from Ambient’s Stock Orb, a ball that glows different colors to show stock market activity, Petersen developed the Energy Orb. The glowing balls are placed in dorms, so students can pass by and see the buildings power consumption in real time. Red means high consumption, green is low. There is no need to get online and analyze charts. The Orb reveals the immediate truth. Dorms compete against each other to maximize efficiency by watching what their orbs say.

The Energy Orb is just one way we can googlify energy information management. Many other pilot projects are in the works that simplify information retrieval and encourage people to conserve. We’d like to use this space – and our weekly podcast – to feature some of these smart grid experiments. We invite you to submit them for consideration to [email protected]

Visit Elisa Wood at www.realenergywriters.com and pick up her free Energy Efficiency Markets podcast and newsletter.

About the Author

Elisa Wood | Editor-in-Chief

Elisa Wood is an award-winning writer and editor who specializes in the energy industry. She is chief editor and co-founder of Microgrid Knowledge and serves as co-host of the publication’s popular conference series. She also co-founded RealEnergyWriters.com, where she continues to lead a team of energy writers who produce content for energy companies and advocacy organizations.

She has been writing about energy for more than two decades and is published widely. Her work can be found in prominent energy business journals as well as mainstream publications. She has been quoted by NPR, the Wall Street Journal and other notable media outlets.

“For an especially readable voice in the industry, the most consistent interpreter across these years has been the energy journalist Elisa Wood, whose Microgrid Knowledge (and conference) has aggregated more stories better than any other feed of its time,” wrote Malcolm McCullough, in the book, Downtime on the Microgrid, published by MIT Press in 2020.

Twitter: @ElisaWood

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