The tech giant Google has been steadily building a portfolio of sustainability-related projects that put it squarely in the vanguard of corporate leadership, with a long and growing list that includes green data centers, solar power installations, open source alternative energy maps based on Google Earth and even a manure-to-energy project. That’s a pretty impressive list, but in a self-improvement kind of way that seems to ask the question: now what?
Well, it looks like Google has the answer. Earlier this week, the company announced that it is taking corporate social responsibility to the next level with a $2.65 million grant to an organization called the Energy Foundation. Instead of just going to benefit the company’s CSR status, the grant will go to help support public policy reforms aimed at providing members of the public with more control over their energy use, with an eye toward cutting costs while conserving energy, too.
The Google smart electricity initiative
Google’s public policy wish list is a mirror image of its own energy initiatives. As stated in a January 14 blog post by Michael Terrell, Google’s Senior Policy Counsel for Energy and Sustainability, there are three areas of focus:
- Smarter electricity rates that encourage consumers to be more efficient, shift their electricity use to times when it’s cheaper and produce their own on-site energy;
- Access to electricity markets for consumers and other businesses so they can be compensated for cutting energy use at key times; and
- Open data policies that give customers access to their own energy data, which they can use or share with third parties they select, promoting better energy management tools and services.
Green Button and smarter electricity
Google’s interest in public policy for smarter electricity distribution dovetails with the Green Button initiative, which the Obama Administration launched right around this time last year. Green Button is, literally, a green desktop icon or “button” that utility customers can click on to access information about their electricity consumption in a single, user-friendly format.
That sounds simple enough but the tricky part is getting the nation’s patchwork of utility companies to sign on to a single, universal format for the information. Fortunately, it’s an idea whose time as come. Within just a few months of its launch Green Button already covered more than 30 million utility customers through utility industry partners including Chattanooga EPB, National Grid, PacifiCorp (aka Rocky Mountain Power and Pacific Power), PPL, TXU Energy, Pacific Gas & Electric Company, Southern California Edison, Oncor, Pepco Holdings Inc., Glendale Water and Power, San Diego Gas & Electric, American Electric Power, Austin Energy, Baltimore Gas and Electric, CenterPoint Energy, Commonwealth Edison, NSTAR, PECO, Reliant, and Virginia Dominion Power.
About 500 utilities have also signed on to a companion program, the Department of Energy’s Utility Data Access Map, which will help consumers nationwide get information about their access to utility company data.
The concept is that by creating a unified national energy information market, the federal government opens the door for software entrepreneurs to develop new applications for putting that information to use. That’s already starting to bear fruit, one example being the startup Melon Power, which was just acquired by the building analytics company WegoWise.
Google and the Energy Foundation
The Energy Foundation is an interesting choice of vehicle to promote a new energy policy. Rather than focusing on one market or the global energy market, the Energy Foundation is tackling two very different but related challenges, the growth of energy consumption in the U.S. and China.
In particular, the Energy Foundation is focused on transitioning both markets away from coal-fired power plants. Though the U.S. is rapidly moving away from coal it still accounts for a significant chunk of global emissions, and meanwhile China’s use of coal is growing.
Add to that the recent smog problems that China has encountered as a result of rapid development, and it looks like The Energy Foundation has its work cut out for it.
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