Google opens PowerMeter API — and the field for energy efficiency apps

Google announced today that it has released the application programming interface (the API) for Google PowerMeter, the tool it launched last year to tell users in real time how much energy they are using and, more importantly, what it is costing them. The decision gives what was a vaguely informative service the potential to spawn gadgetry and software that could change the way we use energy in our daily lives.

PowerMeter collects energy consumption data via two channels: smart meters installed by Google’s utility partners (a handful of utilities across the U.S. and Europe working with the search engine), and device partners like AlertMe and Energy Inc.’s The Energy Detective, which are both capable of collecting and transmitting the relevant data without going through the meter. These were the only people with access to the API before today.

Google was hesitant to release the API to the developer community because energy use raises major concerns over both security and privacy (which the search engine certainly can’t afford right now). No one wants their electricity consumption habits broadcast to the general public, obviously. And beyond that, no one wants it to be any easier for hackers, and other third-parties to edit their electricity bills or disrupt their utility service. PowerMeter’s engineers took both of these issues very seriously in the development of the public API, according to Earth2Tech’s interview with product manager Srikanth Rajagopalan.

The hope is that developers will innovate gadgets and apps that will give consumers even more control over their power use and related decisions. For example, in the future, homeowners will be able to decide which appliances they want to track and which they don’t, how often they will get energy use reports, and even how these appliances will respond to different energy pricing rates or demand levels. Just as venture-backed Tendril is developing a system that could tell your fridge to only make ice when the clothes dryer is off, PowerMeter extensions could soon do the same and more.

Google is actually late to the game when it comes to releasing such an API. Microsoft beat them by a nose, issuing software development tools for its home energy management service, Microsoft Hohm, according to product manager Troy Batterberry. Tendril has also opened up its API to third-parties who could take its capabilities even further with access to consumption data. One fun example: Tendril is partnering with a major video game distributor to release a video game based on energy use. The eco-warrior main character will gain strength as you, the player, conserve energy in real life by turning off lights and the like.

Until now, PowerMeter has been a pretty quiet project for Google — with a user base in the low thousands. At VentureBeat’s smart grid conference GreenBeat in November, the product’s program manager, Ed Lu, told the audience that PowerMeter is really just a gift to humanity with no major ambitions. It looks like this is already starting to shift. Apparently, Google was not content to take a back seat to Microsoft, Tendril, OpenPeak, Silver Spring Networks’ GreenBox, People Power, EnergyHub and the many other companies innovating in the home energy efficiency space. But what’s next?

Here’s a look at the current PowerMeter interface, for those who aren’t familiar: