ENERGY POLICY:

Survey shows huge challenges for 'smart grid,' efficiency efforts

Ninety-five percent of electricity customers would like to have detailed data about when and how they use power, but just 20 percent are willing to pay for real-time information, according to a new survey by software giant Oracle Corp.

Indeed, 14 percent of ratepayers give their utility an "A" for providing "detailed, useful" information about electricity consumption, according to the survey of 604 U.S. consumers and 200 utility managers. Sixteen percent of the utility employees give their companies the same grade.

The findings highlight formidable challenges and opportunities facing public- and private-sector efforts to curb energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. The economic stimulus package President Obama signed into law last month includes $11 billion to build a bigger and more efficient electricity grid, with "smart" meters that help consumers track and manage their energy use.

Oracle executives, who released the survey at an energy conference in Washington, said the time is nigh for utilities to implement smart-grid technologies and educate consumers on the benefits of reducing peak electricity demand.

"Consumers, if they have more information ... they start changing their behavior -- not only about what types of appliances they buy but when they use energy," Oracle President Charles Phillips Jr. told energy executives.

With billions more dollars earmarked in the stimulus for renewable energy generation projects and plug-in electric vehicles on their way to market, Phillips and other industry players said the grid needs more capacity. Consumers can help free up space by managing their energy use more efficiently, and utilities can manage the influx of user data by implementing standards-based technologies.

Contending that what gets measured gets reduced, Google Inc.'s philanthropic arm is developing free software aimed at helping residential electricity customers track power use. Google.org's PowerMeter, which could be downloaded free onto laptops, cellular phones and other portable electronic devices, will show consumers their electricity consumption in near real-time, Google's climate and energy initiatives director Dan Reicher told conference attendees.

Homeowners will need their own smart-meter hardware or other in-home devices to communicate with the iGoogle gadget, which would show the peaks and valleys of energy use, Reicher explained in an interview.

"It's an open protocol, which means software programers can do all sorts of things with the PowerMeter gadget," Reicher added. "We'll start with helping people monitor their home energy use, but there may be someone who decides to write an application that helps them figure out what the incentives are for making efficiency changes in their homes of changing the mix of energy that comes in."

Reicher said Google is testing its PowerMeter technology but declined to say when it will be available to the public.