Visualizing power usage

Man on bridge, Ottawa

Of late, Google has certainly committed itself to some novel and ambitious energy projects. Their PowerMeter project probably scores fairly low on the scale of ambition, but it could nonetheless be very useful. The idea is to take in data from smart electrical meters on homes and process it into a form, accessible online, that is useful for the people who live in them. It looks like it will resemble the Google Analytics system for website statistics tracking, but it will be concerned with energy usage instead. Ideally, it will be able to isolate electricity usage associated with different activities and appliances, allowing consumers to better understand how they are using power and adjust their behaviour to do so more economically and sustainably.

Particularly when paired with differing electricity prices at different times (in order to smooth out variations between times of peak demand and times of minimal demand), such a system could encourage efficiency, help to balance the grid, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

I certainly hope it is eventually made compatible with the smart meters Ottawa Hydro has installing. I have contacted them to ask, but am still waiting for a response.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

13 thoughts on “Visualizing power usage”

  1. I was talking with my flat mate the other day about power consumption and perception, and we realized that back when all the houses on our street were heated by coal and wood burning fire places, people would have had a much more “hands on” understanding of how much energy they were using. You’d see the trucks come and go, you’d have to stack the wood, shovel the coal, etc…

    It’s too bad that clean green electricity doesn’t need to be taken by hand out of trucks, I think the ubiquitousness of energy “on tap” (i.e. electricity, natural gas) makes it more difficult to understand the inherent limitedness of the supply. Whereas with wood, your own supply of wood is finite and the total supply is finite, with electricity, the total supply is finite but your personal supply is infinite (there is no practical limit to the amount of electricity you could consume).

  2. Making consumption more visible definitely has an effect.

    Less sophisticated smart metering systems than Google’s have done things like show your current rate of power usage in terms of cents per hour. Minor psychological incentives, like having a red LED on when usage is over a certain level and a green one when it is below a much lower level, can also have big effects on behaviour.

  3. I think Tristan’s point makes the issue particularly clear.

    I have also heard that many people who try cars equiped with an “energy-use-meter” generally tend to adapt their driving habits to limit gas consumption in a ratio almost equivalent to switching to an hybrid vehicle.

  4. Are We Ready to Track Carbon Footprints?

    Published: March 25, 2008

    A study in California showed that when the monthly electric bill listed the average consumption in the neighborhood, the people in above-average households significantly decreased their consumption.

    Meanwhile, the people with the below-average bills reacted by significantly increasing their consumption — not exactly the goal of the project.

    That reaction was avoided when the bill featured a little drawing along with the numbers: a smiling face on a below-average bill or a frowning face on an above-average bill. After that simple nudge, the heavy users made even bigger cuts in consumption, while the light users remained frugal.

  5. “I have also heard that many people who try cars equiped with an “energy-use-meter” generally tend to adapt their driving habits to limit gas consumption in a ratio almost equivalent to switching to an hybrid vehicle.”

    This happens to be how I learned to drive economically – my parents ford taurus had many buttons on its digital dash, one which turned on the “instant fuel economy ” gauge. Fantastic – you learn quite quickly that what uses fuel is revs more than throttle position, that the best strategy is when accelerating to never have the throttle less than half open, never let the engine rev very high, and as soon as you reach the desired speed, maintain constant speed. Furthermore, being in a higher gear is almost always better – I could get 5L/100km at about 65km/h in 4th gear with the torque converter locked up. Whereas, driving at a constant speed in 3rd gear at 55km/h it was difficult to get better than 10L/100km. This is a good example of why CVT transmission are so awesome – with a traditional gearbox there is a very specific speed where fuel economy is maximized, and everywhere else you really lose out.

    Our modern car has an instant fuel economy gauage, and it reveals something quite interesting. Whereas both the Audi and the Taurus get about 8-9L/100km at 100km/h, the taurus struggles to manage 13L/100km at 140km/h, whereas the Audi does that speed at about 10-11L/100km. My father is able to average 9.5L/100km on a full trip from home to the cabin in 4 hours flat – and this trip time requires keeping speeds far above the ones I can manage.

    I do enjoy having lots of data, it enables one to make better decisions. Although, I think this is partially because I fetishize the act of decision itself. Making one extra trip would almost certainly destroy years of incremental gains in fuel efficiency.

    On the other hand, I’m quite proud of that summer when I covered something like 10,000km in the Taurus (I was working in film at the time, often commuting more than 100km each way to work and back) and averaged 10L/100km on the combined cycle – much better than the car was rated at (I think the rating on EPA website is 12.9L/100km for the combined cycle). Increasing efficiency in a consistent and long term way does greatly reduce the absolute consumption of petrol. Of course, what would really reduce the absolute consumption of petrol would be to get a job where I didn’t have to drive so much…

  6. Washington plugs into the smart grid
    By Niki Fenwick

    Just one week after launching Google’s energy information campaign, we kicked off our first joint smart grid event with GE, a larger clean energy collaboration we announced last fall. Our timing was fortuitous; the event took place just as President Obama signed an historic economic stimulus bill that includes $11 billion to modernize the electricity grid.

  7. This was a demonstration of a suite of open and extensible software applications for managing energy demand and time-of-use pricing by a firm in Boulder, Colorado, called Tendril. The Tendril Residential Energy Ecosystem (TREE) is designed to make life easier for consumers and utilities alike—and to do so without raising the appliance makers from their slumbers.

    Attaching appliances to a power socket via a smart plug containing sensors and a ZigBee transceiver allows information about the appliances’ power consumption to be beamed automatically to a broadband router within the home, and thence to a web server located elsewhere. Consumers can interrogate this server from a PC or iPhone to see not only the consumption pattern of various appliances attached to smart plugs around the home, but also to send instructions back to switch them on or off.

  8. “This is a good example of why CVT transmission are so awesome – with a traditional gearbox there is a very specific speed where fuel economy is maximized, and everywhere else you really lose out.”

    I mentioned in another thread that I was an enthusiast of manual transmissions, and in fact the original Honda Insight hybrid with manual achieved better economy numbers than the CVT version. In practice the CVT transmissions aren’t as good as they are in theory. I’m not aware of all the factors of why this is so, but among the ones I’m aware of are: The steel drive belt in CVTs can be prone to slippage, manufactures occasionally program in artificial ‘shift’ points to make the car feel more like a normal car, and the continued use of torque converters in place of clutches (which can be automated as VW/Audi does with their DSG transmissions). CVTs are a great idea, though, too bad they’ve generally not been implemented well.

  9. Google announces first PowerMeter partners, we beg for more

    By Thomas Ricker on utilities

    At last, we have the first partners in Google’s quest to make your personal power consumption visible on your home computer. As the thinking goes, if you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it. So Google wants to give consumers near real-time visibility to their consumption and usage patterns via Google’s PowerMeter software and utility-supplied “smart meters.” The hope here, is that those aware of their energy consumption habits will change them to save money, and in turn, the planet. The initial list of partner utilities represent millions of homes spread across cities and country-sides in the US, Canada, and India:

    * San Diego Gas & Electric(R) (California)
    * TXU Energy (Texas) JEA (Florida)
    * Reliance Energy (India)
    * Wisconsin Public Service Corporation (Wisconsin)
    * White River Valley Electric Cooperative (Missouri)
    * Toronto Hydro-Electric System Limited (Canada)
    * Glasgow EPB (Kentucky)

  10. German utility partners with Google PowerMeter – willkommen!
    Tuesday 6/30/2009 02:28:00 AM

    Earlier today we announced on the Google Germany Blog that Yello Strom is our first Google PowerMeter partner in Europe. With over 1.4 million customers, Yello is among Germany’s ten largest electricity companies and the very first company to offer commercial smart meters nationwide in Germany.

    When Yello Executive Director Martin Vesper gave us a demo of the Sparzähler meter a few months ago, it felt like fate — Yello’s solution for making energy information easy-to-access and easy-to-act-upon aligns perfectly with our vision for Google PowerMeter. The Sparzähler meter’s broadband connectivity makes it possible for Google PowerMeter users to see 15 minute interval data nearly in real time. (Its design is also pretty sleek, we think.)

  11. Google PowerMeter API introduced for device manufacturers
    By Jamie Yood

    Today we’re excited to introduce the Google PowerMeter API on, for developers interested in integrating with Google PowerMeter. This API will allow device manufacturers to build home energy monitoring devices that work with Google PowerMeter. We’re launching this API in order to help build the ecosystem of innovative developers working towards making energy information more widely available to consumers.

    In today’s launch of the API on we are highlighting the core design principles towards integrating with Google PowerMeter. In particular we outline the underlying data model and the accompanying protocols to ensure that Google PowerMeter provides consumers access to their energy consumption with utmost care in maintaining the user’s privacy and control on access to the information. We also highlight, with code samples and client implementations, how to easily start building your PowerMeter-compatible device.

    Tune into our blog and subscribe to our notification list for announcements on upcoming developments. We are thrilled to bring together a rich framework to help more developers integrate with Google PowerMeter with our open, standards-based API. We are looking to expose expanded features of this framework to the developer community in the coming months.

  12. “Two more software products will be going to Google Software Heaven shortly. On Friday, Google issued a death certificate for Google Health (date of death = Jan. 1, 2012), and added that the lights will go out on Google PowerMeter on Sep. 16, 2011. ‘We’ve observed that Google Health is not having the broad impact that we hoped it would,’ said Google. ‘There has been adoption among certain groups of users like tech-savvy patients and their caregivers, and more recently fitness and wellness enthusiasts. But we haven’t found a way to translate that limited usage into widespread adoption in the daily health routines of millions of people.’ Regarding PowerMeter, Google’s ‘Green Energy Czar’ had this to say: ‘We’re pleased that PowerMeter has helped demonstrate the importance of this access and created something of a model. However, our efforts have not scaled as quickly as we would like, so we are retiring the service.‘ Google added that the White House will carry on the fight after being inspired by success stories like the Harker School (tuition: $36,435), which used grant money to acquire off-the-shelf sub-metering technology that revealed their energy bill could be reduced by not air conditioning the gym from 9pm-3am.”

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