Blog Post

Why Google and Grid Net Should Team Up On the Smart Grid

Here’s two unconventional players that could make an influential but unusual team in terms of open standards and innovation for the smart grid: Google (s GOOG) and software maker Grid Net. OK, hear me out.

As Grid Net’s new Chief Strategy Officer Andres Carvallo told me last week, Grid Net is looking to build an ecosystem around its vision of a real time, 100-percent Internet Protocol, secure, reliable, scalable, broadband-based smart grid platform. While the wireless standard is the backbone of Grid Net’s first product, Carvallo told me the startup plans to take the core software and explore other technologies as well, including possibly fiber and broadband-over powerline technology.

While Google is a light-weight, if not merely experimental, player in the smart grid, the search engine giant shares that same basic vision for energy (and the Internet in general) as Grid Net: a smart grid based on broadband, open-standards and all IP. Google has developed its PowerMeter web energy tool that can collect smart grid data in real time via a basic Internet connection, and has partnered with gadget makers so that PowerMeter can even bypass smart meters.

Google has also been very vocal on the issue of utilities providing real-time energy data to consumers and has been involved in the process of the California Public Utility Commission asking investor-owned utilities to provide this data to consumers by a certain deadline. On that issue Google’s policy counsel Michael Terrell told us that the CPUC process is “a hugely important proceeding that will determine how the ecosystem in this space evolves.”

So here’s one way I think Google and Grid Net could proceed: pilot Grid Net’s smart grid software over the experimental fiber network that Google plans to build. The search giant’s plan includes setting up an experimental fiber-to-the-home network in select areas of the country that would offer speeds of around 1 Gigabit per second. Google aims to serve between 50,000 and 500,000 people and offer the service at a “competitive cost.”

It’s not such a crazy idea for these two companies to work together on a fiber smart grid network. Earlier this month the local Concord Journal reported that the city of Concord has been petitioning Google to try to get a Google fiber project built in its jurisdiction. The Journal says that the city’s application says it “plans to deploy a SmartGrid” over the fiber. (see related story on GigaOM Pro, subscription required, Google Buzz, Fiber and Their Place in the Smart Grid).

The problem with fiber for the smart grid to date is that the infrastructure has been too expensive for utilities. Xcel Energy’s showcase smart grid project in Boulder, Colo. has cost a lot more than originally expected, and the Colorado Public Utility Commission says fiber is one of the main culprits for the cost overruns.

But fiber, and other broadband technologies like WiMAX will likely be the future of the smart grid. Today utilities are hesitant to build out robust, high bandwidth networks because of cost, but as the Federal Communication Commission said today in its National Broadband Plan:

The amount of data moving across Smart Grid networks is modest today but is expected to grow significantly because the number of devices, frequency of communications and complexity of data transferred are all expected to increase. Various parties have attempted to estimate bandwidth requirements; none expect existing narrowband communications will be sufficient.

The FCC notes that Sempra Energy says its needs “at least 100 kbps to all utility assets and customer locations,” and DTE Energy has said it needs 200-500 kbps to support pole-mounted distribution devices.

For Google, connecting with Grid Net could mean an interesting test bed for how PowerMeter could integrate more with smart meter software and backend utility systems. And if Google ever had any intentions for its recently-approved ability to buy and sell energy (beyond its carbon footprint claims) it would be reasonable for the search engine giant to test out such a system. Some have speculated that Google’s energy buying and selling program has to do with its intentions to enter the digital living room.

Google has long done small pilots like this, and has launched experimental services like muni WiFi. Google also has a history with WiMAX, investing in Clearwire (s CLWR) back in the day, so Google could team up on Grid Net’s current product, too.

I asked both Grid Net’s Carvallo, and Google’s spokesperson to weigh in on the idea. Carvallo told me: We’d be delighted to do a project with Google. Google’s response: We don’t respond on who we are discussing plans with for fiber.