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Google's PowerMeter May Be a Cautionary Note

August 2011

  • Earlier this summer, Google announced the phasing out by mid-September of its online home energy monitoring tool called PowerMeter, noting lack of consumer interest as the primary reason.
  • In Ontario, utilities are investing hundreds of millions of dollars in the installation of smart meters to capture detailed information about energy consumption by each consumer.
  • The experience with PowerMeter may be a cautionary note concerning Ontario's push for smart meters, and the assumption that widespread access to smart meter data will feed a latent demand from consumers for access to this kind of data.

Earlier this summer, Google announced the phasing out by mid-September of its online home energy monitoring tool called PowerMeter, noting lack of consumer interest as the primary reason. With the prominence of energy conservation and environmental management as key issues in many regions and jurisdictions, it is interesting to examine the possible implications of Google's decision and what it portends for similar initiatives, such as Ontario's smart meter initiative.

In brief, Google's PowerMeter was designed to enable users to view and interpret their energy consumption data in near real-time and use the information to adjust their energy consumption behaviour. The adoption of time-of-use or "smart" meters is on the rise and facilitates this kind of application given the ability of the meters to track detailed energy consumption and time-of-use data.

In launching PowerMeter in 2009, Google tried to facilitate the apparent desire of many consumers to use energy responsibly. The underlying assumption was that consumers would be interested in viewing their energy consumption information as a means to identify opportunities for energy conservation or load shifting.

In June, Google reported that PowerMeter "didn't catch on the way we would have hoped."

In Ontario, utilities are investing hundreds of millions of dollars in the installation of smart meters to capture detailed information about energy consumption by each consumer. Many utilities have launched web-based portals where consumers can log in and view charts of their energy usage, much like PowerMeter offered. The assumption again is that access to this information will empower and motivate consumers to change their consumption habits. Does the demise of PowerMeter have anything to tell us about how successful these Ontario initiatives may be?

The fact that consumers failed to embrace PowerMeter may reflect on the tool itself. Perhaps the idea was sound, but the execution was flawed. The utility-based portals we've seen in Ontario have a look and feel very much like PowerMeter. Google has a lot of resources and a lot of expertise in user interfaces. It would seem that if PowerMeter just needed to be tweaked it would have been tweaked, not abandoned. It seems likely that Google concluded the problem was more fundamental than just how the data was presented.

Some observers have suggested that utility services and home energy consumption are "low-involvement" consumer purchases. We don't think about buying or consuming electricity the way we think about buying clothes, or entertainment, or other items. For most people, it just kind of happens. For people to want to look at their energy consumption history and think about how to change it, they have to be engaged and interested in the idea. Giving them access to the data facilitates analysis by those who are interested, but it doesn't necessarily make them interested. Something else has to do that.

To be interested, consumers would need to feel that looking at the data could actually help them make changes that would have a meaningful impact. If consumers feel they cannot change their consumption pattern in any meaningful way, then there is no value to them in looking at the data. It is what it is. Or, if they feel that making an effort to change their behaviour will not produce meaningful savings, then again, there is no value in looking at the data.

The demise of PowerMeter may show that only a small percentage of energy users have significant interest in energy consumption data for its own sake. This may reflect a percentage of the population that feels particularly strongly about pursuing energy conservation, or a fraction of the population that simply likes to analyse numbers - energy consumption data as much as baseball stats.

It could be, however, that the majority of the population has a low or at best moderate level of interest in evaluating their energy consumption data. Among this group, Google's PowerMeter would seem more likely to attract users than similar platforms offered by the local utility. Most users of the internet interact with some Google application every day, whether it is the search engine or sites like Google Maps, Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Blogs, or YouTube. If the user had enabled PowerMeter at some point, then there is a chance the PowerMeter icon might catch their eye from time to time as they navigated some other Google application, and they might just check out recent consumption patterns. On the other hand, if the data is available only through the local utility website, a consumer would have to make a conscious choice to go, for example, to torontohydro.com and log-in to their customer account in order to view the data. We have no statistics on what percentage of utility consumers regularly view their smart meter data on their utility's web site, but a Google platform seems more likely to catch a higher percentage of casual, low-involvement users.

Yet PowerMeter did not capture enough users to survive. Both Microsoft and Cisco have also recently cancelled projects related to information systems for home energy consumers.

The experience with PowerMeter may be a cautionary note concerning Ontario's push for smart meters, and the assumption that widespread access to smart meter data will feed a latent demand from consumers for access to this kind of data, to support action on conservation and load shifting behaviour.

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