A good friend and colleague of mine, Scott Kier of Mosaic EcoSystems, pinged me a few weeks ago asking for my POV on Google's Energy Foray. I turned the question back on him and here was his response (posted with permission). Very intriguing stuff...
"One of the silver bullets in terms of energy efficiency is the 'smart grid' - a power grid that does more than just send a powerful stream of electricity to your home or office or factory for you to tap into. Rather, it's going to involve attaching a network to the grid - or merging the grid entirely with existing data networks.
Just about anything that's plugged in - a lamp, a dishwasher, etc... - draws a trickle of power even when turned off. Eliminating that trickle won't revolutionize anyone's electric bill, and fossil fuel energy remains extremely cheap for you and me, so we don't tend to worry about these small moves towards efficiency. But if EVERYONE eliminated that trickle, collectively it significantly moves the needle of overall energy usage. So what needs to happen isn't just turning off the power switch on the appliance, but rather, turning off the outlet it's plugged into. So you need the outlet to be networked so that when you turn an appliance back on, it re-activates the outlet.
Here's another smart grid application: the power company in Las Vegas knew that people were over-cooling their homes. In the summer in Vegas, setting your thermostat to 78 feels the same in the dry air as setting it to 69-70 does here in Chicago. But most people were setting it to 72-74. Well, when it's over 100 outside, cooling those extra 5-7 degrees is a major usage of power. So stimulus money went to providing single-family homes in Vegas with a smart thermostat which allows the power company to set a default temperature. You can override it, but they were convinced that people wouldn't do so when they realized that 78 degrees was perfectly comfortable and saw the result of that on their electric bill. My parents' electric bill last July fell almost $100 year-over-year.
There are tons more, like smart water heaters that shut down when not needed as opposed to running all the time, keeping water hot.
And when most homes have at least supplemental solar and wind power, it's going to take a smart system to know how to optimize the mix of in situ renewables and grid power, in much the same way as a Google algorithm generates placement for paid search and SEO.
Think of the progression from the typewriter to the computer: it gave you and me a lot more to DO, a lot more access to information, it replaced the card catalog at the library with a query, so we could customize our usage of information. Droid and iPhone OS are the distillation of that for mobile usage, and I believe (and HP seems to believe, too, based on the rationale for their acquisition of Palm) that this is the way in which more and more people will interact with their data.
Well, the progression from a dumb power grid that just blasts power and loses a ton of it along the way to a smart grid that, much like a query, will only go where it's needed - will only find the "relevant" destination - will give you and I will many more applications to manage that, just as we have applications to manage our data.
Tom Friedman calls this the 'energy internet': replacing a dumb, manual system with one driven by queries and manipulation of data. This is exactly what Google knows how to do, so as we move into an era where energy and data will be part of the same technological ecosystem... who better than Google to be a leader in an emerging space that will be built as much on a technological, data-driven platform as an industrial one? They have the processes and culture for innovation, many of the core competencies, and the resources to to be ahead of the pack in this next phase and essentially avoid the fate that befell Microsoft when they really fell behind Apple and Google when the game moved on them.
(Yes, I know PC still crushes Apple in market share, but Apple is still viewed as the premium product, and as tablet computing emerges, Apple will narrow that gap dramatically, and Google will further encroach on Microsoft's position as you have Droid-based tablets.)"