Energy Efficiency Markets LLC

Googlifying the electric grid

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Courtesy of Energy Efficiency Markets LLC

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.

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.

John Peterson, 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 (, Peterson 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 Peterson 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, Peterson 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.

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