Watch the business pages this week, and you'll see technology giants like Google, Microsoft and IBM tripping over each other to announce their latest "smart" technology for tracking energy and emissions from businesses and homes.
Their timing is as smart as the technology they hope to sell. The economic stimulus package that won approval in the Senate today includes $4.5 billion for "smart" grid technology and billions more for energy efficiency.
Tech companies large and small were already busy behind the scenes talking to the new administration in Washington and sending testimony to state agencies to ensure that this new energy world President Obama envisions includes their software, equipment and applications.
Their selling point is this: It's easier to save energy, cut foreign oil imports and reduce your carbon emissions if you know where your energy is being wasted.
For businesses, that means having all the emissions and energy data – from resource acquisition to production to transit – in one easy-to-access place and continually updated for analysis. At home, it means knowing just how much energy is being sucked away by the big screen TV blaring to an empty room or the load of laundry spinning in the dryer.
Google, in typical Google fashion, wants to transmit your home's entire energy diet into an online app that can count the kilowatts for you. This morning, it introduced PowerMeter, a new online application that has the potential to track a home's energy use, appliance by appliance, in real time.
Of course, a computer application can't do much without data. All those tracked appliances will have to have chips installed that can feed their energy information to a computer. Google still needs to work with manufacturers to develop that part of the plan.
With PowerMeter still in beta testing, Google might seem to be getting ahead of itself. But by announcing the project now, Google is declaring a stake in the game. It's well aware of President Obama's energy plans for the country, which include higher energy efficiency standards and the installation of 40 million smart meters in U.S. homes.
Yesterday, Google urged the California Public Utilities Commission to write the state's smart grid principles in a way that would ensure consumers have direct access to real-time electricity use data in a standardized format – something applications like PowerMeter would need.
Google engineer Russ Morov, one of a few dozen beta testers, said that simply knowing where his power was going helped him cut his energy consumption by about 60 percent, primarily by replacing two 20-year-old refrigerators, his incandescent lights and the timing on the pool pump. He says he's saved about $3,000 a year. That's probably high, however studies do show that people who are aware of where they're wasting energy tend to reduce power use by about 15 percent.
Rick Sergel, CEO of the power grid industry group North American Electric Reliability Corp., describe the potential of this sort of smart metering to The New York Times:
"They've been putting a chip in your dishwasher for a long time that would allow you to run it any time you want." If the utility could "talk" to the dishwasher, it might tell the machine to run at 2 a.m. and not 2 p.m., or it might tell the homeowner how much money would be saved by running the dishwasher at a different hour. "It provides an opportunity to create dancing partners that will help the system balance itself."
IBM is setting its sights on larger targets. As we wrote on Sunday, the company announced a $90 million deal to turn Malta's power grid into the first national smart grid, and that was just the latest large smart grid move by Big Blue. It's already working with several utilities across North America and Europe. In December, it shared its vision of the future with incoming Obama administration: A $50 billion investment in smart grid deployment over the next five years, it said, would create 239,000 jobs.
This week, the company also unveiled a series of software applications to further the cause.
Microsoft is going after businesses. Yesterday, it released a new environmental sustainability dashboard for its business systems tracking software, Dynamics AX. The dashboard adds indicators to track greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption.
While all the buzz about new smart technologies sounds like the tech world has a finger on the pulse of energy concerns, we also noticed this bit of news, straight from the heart of Silicon Valley: A new survey finds that too many Internet and e-commerce businesses aren't embracing green IT themselves.
BPM Forum found that Internet and e-commerce businesses, which often have sprawling data centers, are talking about the need for green IT – 97 percent of the 275 IT professionals surveyed said reducing their corporate carbon footprint was at least somewhat important. But only about a quarter of them were actually embracing high standards. "They're mostly talk and little walk," BPM Forum determined. "Conducting senior level discussion (37 percent), publishing CSR guidelines (32 percent), and doing nothing (31 percent) topped the list of what executives are doing to push the ecological mantra."