Google makes new electricity push

Google is launching an effort aimed at getting electric utilities and states to change how they charge consumers for electricity.

The Internet giant is putting money behind the push, announcing Monday that it awarded a $2.65 million grant to grantmaking group Energy Foundation.

Google said policy reforms would incentivize the use of “smart grid" technology, encourage greater energy conservation and reduce power blackouts.

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“We’ve seen big changes in recent years to the way we watch TV, use phones, read and listen to music, yet how we use electricity hasn’t changed much in decades,” Michael Terrell, senior policy counsel of energy and sustainability with Google, wrote Monday on the Internet giant’s blog.

Google wants a heavier use of “smart” grid technology, a term that refers to devices and “smart” electric meters that communicate through Internet protocol — rather than proprietary — communication systems.

Smart grid technology would enable consumers to see their energy use data in real time, most commonly through a website provided by the electric utility, or a home energy management device.

The 2009 federal stimulus included $3.4 billion in smart grid investment grants, giving utilities funds to upgrade their systems.

But federal policy has little impact on electric rates, which are decided by utilities and state regulatory boards.

Some electric utilities already have implemented the rate changes Google seeks.

Chiefly, Google wants to expand the use of a pricing system that pushes consumers away from using power during times of the greatest system stress.

Rather than utilities charging a flat power rate through the day, power would cost more during peak periods — typically the hours before and after a normal workday — and less at off-peak times.

Google said such pricing would also promote greater use of on-site renewable energy.

And some utilities offer rebates for cutting energy use during peak periods, usually through a voluntary program that lets utilities automatically ramp down home power use through "smart" meters and devices.

Additionally, Google wants to allow more competition in power markets so consumers can shop for lower prices. Currently, most state regulators have final say on electric rate increases in exchange for giving utilities a dedicated service area.

Lastly, Google wants to build on a White House-supported effort that eases consumer access to energy use.

Known as the “Green Button” initiative, the program allows consumers at participating utilities to download their energy data with the click of a button.

But some privacy and liability laws still prevent consumers from sharing that information with third-party energy management firms.

“These policy reforms, coupled with the new technologies now being deployed on a large scale, can empower consumers to make smarter energy choices, improve real-time management of the electricity grid and help facilitate more renewable energy, all while lowering overall costs,” Terrell said.

— This story was updated at 9:56 a.m.

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