WASHINGTON -- If the hopes for a cleaner, more efficient energy economy are riding on the back of the Internet, it shouldn't be any surprise that a company like Google is positioning itself at the center of the debate.
Here at Google's D.C. office, the search giant co-hosted a seminar with GE to press for emerging smart-grid technologies.
Recognizing that the dream of a dynamic, coordinated power grid is as much an electricity problem as it is an IT problem, the two companies have been working together since last fall to develop smart-grid technologies and evangelize about the energy savings they would bring.
"The smart grid is in essence the marriage of information technology and process-automation technology with our existing electrical networks," said Bob Gillian, vice president of GE's energy division.
The benefits of the smart grid are clear enough. Sophisticated meters would give consumers a clearer picture of how much energy they are using and how much it is costing them. Other technologies like sensors and new software applications could adjust a household's power consumption to go easy on the grid at times of peak demand. Utilities would also enjoy new efficiencies through technologies like broadband metering, and an advanced network could store and distribute renewables like solar energy.
"We believe that by working together as innovative companies and innovative leaders in our industries, with GE being a big energy company and Google being a big information technology company, that we have a real opportunity to help realize that change for consumers and to help lead the way in transforming the way our grid operates," Gillian said.
The discussion was timely. As the panelists were laying out their visions for a new energy regime, President Obama was signing into law the massive economic stimulus package that will direct tens of billions of dollars toward clean and efficient energy initiatives, including $4.5 billion for smart-grid technologies.
The panelists acknowledged that retrofitting the nation's power grid will be a slow ship to turn. Adrian Tuck, CEO of smart-grid startup Tendril, said he thought 10 years would be a reasonable timetable to get most American households on the new system.
Any such estimate is of course contingent on the Department of Energy administering funds like those provided in the stimulus bill efficiently, a prospect which met with hearty skepticism from many of the panelists.
The dream of a smart grid, where every household appliance is networked and able to communicate with the power grid, and consumers can do things like adjust their thermostats using a mobile phone, rests on universal Internet connectivity.
A Web-based monitoring system like Google's PowerMeter would clearly benefit from greater broadband adoption, a long-simmering policy initiative that also received a healthy serving of stimulus money.
But there is a wide middle-ground between a hyper-connected smart grid and the current electricity model, which advocates of reform are fond of noting would look very much the same to Thomas Edison were he to come back to life.
This article was first published on InternetNews.com.