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British Gas customers get Google PowerMeter

Monitor electricity usage online

The Google PowerMeter service made its UK debut this week, allowing British Gas customers to monitor their electricity usage from afar online.

British Gas has partnered with AlertMe, a company based in Cambridge that sells hardware and a service that sends electricity consumption data over the internet.

AlertMe has linked its system with Google's PowerMeter, which can generate graphs of electricity usage that can be viewed anywhere using a mobile phone or computer.

Many utilities are working on smart-meter technology to help consumers become more aware of their electricity usage and take steps to reduce it. The UK government is striving to have smart meters in every home by 2020, and the US plans to install up to 40 million smart meters as part of a recent economic stimulus plan.

Google, which announced its PowerMeter service in February, estimates that consumers can cut their energy consumption by up to 15 percent if they have more information on their consumption patterns. Google's PowerMeter application can be placed on a person's iGoogle home page, a page people can customize with various Google gadgets.

To monitor electricity, AlertMe sells a device called a "meter reader." Since U.K. power meters can be read inductively, a homeowner just needs to clip the device onto the meter, said Pilgrim Beart, AlertMe's CEO. It avoids the difficulty of installing "smart meters", which are devices designed to replace old power meters for use in conjunction with remote monitoring systems.

The meter reader takes second-by-second measurements, which are then transmitted wirelessly to AlertMe's "Nano Hub", which plugs into a router. The information is then sent to AlertMe, which has its own web-based front end where customers can log in and view their electricity data.

Customers can also opt to view the information through Google's PowerMeter. AlertMe also sells a "SmartPlug" that records the energy consumption for a specific device. Those cost £25 each. Under the current configuration, however, Google's PowerMeter will only display the total household energy consumption rather than break it down by appliance. AlertMe's service can break it down by device.

The data can be viewed in kilowatt hours by day, week, month or year or as the total cost of the electricity. AlertMe sells the hardware for £69 and charges £2.99 per month for the online service. Users can also opt for a slightly cheaper payment arrangement, with a one-year £99 subscription that includes the meter reader, transmitter and hub. The option to use Google PowerMeter is free.

AlertMe is already working on more advanced features that will give consumers more control over power bills. It is testing with British Gas a system that would allow homeowners to control their programmers - thermostats in the US - online, Beart said.

AlertMe's labs are also working on software that would be able to distinguish major appliances from one another, such as identifying the refrigerator versus the washing machine versus a kettle. All of those appliances have distinct electricity patterns that can be identified using algorithms, Beart said. That improvement means people wouldn't need the £25 SmartPlug.

Overall, the data can then be used to figure out consumption patterns. The delivery of the information is important. AlertMe is entirely consumer-focused and wants to make it easy to "engage people effectively and change their behaviour," Beart said. Although AlertMe's web front-end enables more detail for its system than Google's PowerMeter, Beart said the Google option gives people another way to look at the data.

Separately on Tuesday, Google announced it had reached its first agreement with a UK utility to use its PowerMeter. The company, first:utility, is providing free smart meters to some 30,000 UK customers. Starting next month, those customers will able to use Google's PowerMeter in conjunction with those meters.

For its PowerMeter program, Google said it has secured agreements with two device companies and 10 utilities in five countries, wrote Ka-Ping Yee, a software engineer, and Jens Redmer, of Google's business development, on a company blog.

See also: 8 gadgets to save money and go green


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