The news that utilities like San Diego Gas & Electric and incumbent meter maker Itron will be offering Google’s PowerMeter energy tool to their customers offers a glimpse of how the old-skool power industry is starting to be shaped by the new world of the Internet, with free and easy access to information. Consumers are increasingly relying on the web to easily manage their bills, buy goods and find information online, and there’s a whole host of companies (like Google) that, having built up a trusted relationship with the consumer, are moving into the business of energy management. Whether companies in the traditional power space feel threatened or embrace the emergence of these new players could determine how well their businesses do.
San Diego Gas & Electric’s vice president of customer solutions, Hal Snyder, put it succinctly in a call with me this morning:
“To pretend that we’re going to completely own that relationship with the customer and not work with companies like Google is naive. It’s the customer’s data, we should be seen as a facilitator.”
His argument rings true of another industry that faced a similar dilemma: telecom. For years phone companies worried that they would become “dump pipes” that just acted as a channel over which other companies could sell services. But the more savvy companies (AT&T and its Apple deal) discovered other business models and applications to sell. Will the power industry follow the same path? Well, utilities are in a different business than telcos, and have to deal with different regulations and worry about things like utility-grade service. But the companies building the hardware and software for smart meters and the smart grid will have to consider the debate carefully.
While SDG&E is one of the first utilities to partner with Google for PowerMeter, the utility isn’t tying its hands in an exclusive deal with the search engine giant. Snyder was clear in the call that Google is just the first company that SDG&E is working with for smart meter software and emphasized the fact that other partnerships would soon follow suit. Snyder also said that SDG&E’s web site for consumers will provide more info than the energy data services for Google’s PowerMeter tool. So SDG&E’s customers will have a choice between a variety of energy tools, one of which will be Google PowerMeter. It’s a good thing for customers and for Google, that’s what they do best: compete.