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San Diego Gas & Electric  has recently started installing what it calls “smart meters” in 1.4 million homes in southern California. It’s up to 10,000 now, hopes to get more than 200,000 by the end of the year, and have everybody installed by 2011.
Any of SDG&E’s customers can get their electricity-usage information from the utility’s own website, but now they’ll have the option of getting it straight from Google instead, embedding it on their iGoogle home page, that kind of thing. And the more they see how much energy they’re using, the less they’ll use — a 5%-10% reduction up-front, with more down the road when they start replacing appliances and light bulbs and the like.
SDG&E's smart meters are indeed smarter, but they're still outside, and they're still basically just a fancy replacement for your current power meter. What's important is having something inside that shows you in real time how much electricity you're using. Someday that will probably be a physical device, but for now Google is providing this information to SDG&E customers via its PowerMeter app, which can be embedded on your iGoogle home page. Open it up and you can see exactly how much power you're using every time you turn an appliance on or off. Neat.
The simple act of making people aware of their electricity usage can probably generate a surprising amount of conservation. And relatively speaking, it's cheap. This kind of thing could help in other areas too. Here's a cheap and simple idea, for example: place the estimated 5-year cost of gasoline on the sticker of every new car. EPA could easily come up with a formula based on average car use and recent gasoline prices, and it would almost certainly make fuel-efficient cars more attractive if people saw the savings of buying one right in front of their faces when they were comparing cars. More like this, please.