Alistair Fairweather

Google Electric?

2010-03-05 08:25

Imagine getting an electricity bill from Google. It would probably be e-mailed to you, or you could just search for it: "How much electricity did I use last month?" It sounds outlandish, but in mid-February Google were granted the right to generate and trade in electrical power in the USA.

In some ways it's an obvious move. Google is a huge consumer of electricity. It crams literally hundreds of thousands of powerful computers into its data centres. This enormous scale is part of what makes its services both fast and cheap, but the power burned by each humming megalith could literally light a small city.

We tend to think of Google as a software company, but its mastery of hardware is equally important to its business model. It owns a dozen hardware patents - most of them for technologies that make its data centres cheaper, cooler, faster and more efficient.

It was only a matter of time before it started optimising its power supply. This meshes well with its corporate mission to attain that rarefied state of being (and PR): carbon neutrality. Google won't be building any coal-powered smog machines - it's all going to be wind, sun and exotics like geothermal.

OK, so power generation makes sense, but what about trading? The Googlers may talk and dress like San-Francisco tech hippies, but they're really hard-headed business people. The last thing they want is the kind of underutilising capacity that most power utilities are saddled with. They’d rather sell it off to their neighbours.

This idea has caused quite a stir in the tech press. Some commentators fear that this is just another opportunity for Google to mine valuable data about consumers with which to feather its own nest.

Google already "knows" what millions of people are buying (search), where they are going (maps), what they are watching (YouTube) and even who they are e-mailing (Gmail). How much worse would it be if they knew how much electricity you were using, and when?

Scaremongering aside, it's highly unlikely Google will become a major player in the electricity market. Frankly they have bigger fish to fry - like the highly competitive mobile phone, operating system and social networking markets, all of which they have recently entered.

Besides, like it or not, Google are already a utility and one with global scale. They're simply an information utility - and that will always be their core business. We could hate them for being unscrupulous - as they sometimes are - but we shouldn't hate them for being brilliant or ambitious.

For decades we've been talking about "smart grids" - electricity transmission systems that can quickly react to spikes in demand and make distribution less inherently wasteful. If Google can accelerate the evolution of this idea, then I say roll on Google Power.

Send your comments to Alistair

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