The Green Penguin: Going Green With Google

"The Green Penguin" is a new blog devoted to ‘green’ IT related to Linux (though at times loosely). This week´s topic is about Google and General Electric´s recently announced plan to promote a ‘smart’ electric power grid and thus encourage greater use of renewable energy.

Both the ‘greenie’ and the Linux geek in me were pumped up last week when I read the Google-GE announcement. On the green side, this news is exciting because hardcore renewable-energy wonks know that although dealing with the antediluvian electrical grid isn’t a sexy topic, it is in fact one of the biggest hurdles to harnessing renewable energy on a massive scale in the U.S.

On the Linux side, this news is exciting, too, in at least two ways. First, our electrical system is taking on characteristics interesting to us Linux and open source folks, i.e. becoming more participatory and ‘two-way’ (and hopefully with open standards) rather than one way and proprietary. Second, it will be exciting to see what next generation of devices that will be directing the increasingly two-way traffic on the electrical grid. Will Google do an Android-like device for individual (home and/or business) power management? How cool would that be?

The Basics of the Deal

In case you didn’t see the announcement, here are the basics. Google and GE are betting on the fact that the U.S. is going to move towards greater use of renewable energy, such as solar, wind and geothermal power. However, as we’ll discuss shortly simply throwing up solar panels and wind turbines is only the beginning. What’s needed is a power-transmission system that can manage distibution more intelligently. These companies also think that we will soon power our cars with electricity, something that the system cannot handle. The heart of the deal is this. Google and GE would contribute their respective expertise to initiatives that make this new power-distribution possible. This initiative will complement the other things the companies are doing to promote renewable energy, such as Google’s initiative to generate renewable energy in a manner cheaper than coal.

Renewable Energy Needs Creative IT

It is so exciting to imagine what creative IT solutions can do to vastly improve our use of renewable energy. This announcement offers hints to the quantum leaps may soon be occurring in how our society manages its power. What is occurring is that we are increasingly getting a “Smart Grid” or a smart electricity power generation and distribution system. You may have heard about one aspect of the smart grid that involves “net metering”. For instance, if you own solar panels, oftentimes you will generate more power than you use. In this case you would have a smart meter that would manage your relationship with your electrical utility and keep track of how many electrons you send to and receive from it. You would only be billed for the net usage over the billing period. In many places, the utility is even required to pay you for any excess power that you supply.

But smart meters are only one small part of a next generation Smart Grid. It also involves two-way communications, computers and computer networks and sensors. If the meters, as well as smart electrical sockets can be managed remotely via an Internet connection, a much more sophisticated level of electricity management is possible. The possibilities for vastly more efficient, reliable and intelligent power management with a Smart Grid are astounding. In addition, utilities will be able to manage peak demand better to avoid blackouts and reduce the amount of peak capacity required for the system. For utilities, this is a big deal.

The Smart Grid and its accompanying IT solutions have the potential to open up many new opportunities in the renewable energy sector. Here I will mention but a few that are especially appealing to me.

First, I simply like the idea of consumers having more ‘power’ when it comes to power. Having a Smart Grid will naturally accelerate the decentralization of the power grid, which should vastly simplify the means of connecting your own renewable power generation system, such as solar or wind. Of course the right government regulation must exist, as well, but my guess is that the existence of the technology will change the dynamics of how individuals feel about generating their own electricity by empowering them.

Second, there is another idea I like which is actually not so positive for regarding ‘power to the people’ but is perhaps one of the best ways to get the incentives right regarding power usage. A Smart Grid could be transformational by enabling utilities to be in the business of conserving electricity rather than maximizing its sale. Wouldn’t that be revolutionary? Here is how it might work. Imagine utilities competing to provide your home with a number of services, such as home climate control, refrigeration, hot water, etc. The utility would be responsible for the appliances, air conditioner, furnace, etc. in our homes. Each utility would attempt to offer you the most services for the lowest price, with the variable cost being the energy.

A similar scenario might involve utilities leasing your roof to install solar panels that it would own, not you. The Smart Grid would allow the utility to monitor and manage the installation remotely.

The Role for Linux and Open Source for the Smart Grid

The Google-GE announcement illustrates that an expansion of inexorable trends in IT that Doc Searls’ discusses in his DIY IT articles may not just be limited to standard corporate IT. Doc’s basic idea is that open source changes the relationship between solution provider and users to a true, two-way relationship with authentic feedback. Product users are empowered and no longer fully at the whims of suppliers. In the case of the Smart Grid, the most likely scenario is that power users take more responsibility for managing their own power supply.

The control center for managing one’s power supply could very well be an Android-like device created by Google. By going this route, and hopefully basing it on Linux and Java like Android, Google could leverage its expertise with numerous device manufacturers and by creating a standard, user-friendly device platform that might end up in every one of our homes one day. Not only could it allow homeowners to manage and monitor their own energy usage, including one’s own power supply such as solar, but it could one day also interact with the utility. In the near term, the relationship would be simply two-way power monitoring, but one day it might include the utility interacting with devices within homes in order to manage demand more effectively. In non-emergency times this might mean having real-time pricing information from the utility based on electricity demand. It might cost homeowners $1.00 to run the dishwasher at noon but only $0.20 at night. This information would allow them to make better power-use decisions. Meanwhile, in emergency times, such as an extreme heat wave, the utility could manage the usage patterns of large users in order to avoid a blackout or brownout. The opportunities are diverse.

It is pretty safe to say that when Google gets involved in something, it is likely to be well-reasoned and interesting. Who knows, one day you may have a Google device in your home that helps you to be a much greener energy user and provider.

James Gray is Linux Journal Products Editor. He recently graduated with a master’s degree in environmental science and policy from Michigan State University.

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James Gray is Products Editor for Linux Journal

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