Heavyweight Companies to Obama: Providing Energy Info to Customers Vital

Carl Weinschenk

Just how hot is smart grid technology in general and home energy monitoring specifically? There is no definitive answer, of course. But an inkling of the level of interest it is generating is evident in the names of the companies that signed a letter to President Obama asking that the administration push the concept of making home energy information more freely available.

The signatories include AT&T, GE, Google -- which is hosting a meeting on home energy usage -- Intel and about 40 other firms, according to InformationWeek, which offers a link to the letter. The companies say that giving consumers clearer information can cut energy use by 15 percent and that an investment of $520 billion over the next decade could cut demand by 23 percent, which would save about $1.2 trillion over that period.

There still are serious issues of privacy and security on the sensitive question of amassing the data. The bottom line is pretty simple: If so much granular information is collected and put into electronic form, it is almost certain that it will be attacked by the bad guys at some point.

Such fears notwithstanding, the promise of the smart grid, which is partially overlapping and partially parallel to the broadband stimulus and the National Broadband Plan, is tremendous. Access to home energy information is an important building block of the overall effort.

The converging of several trends is unmistakable: Folks in the telecommunications and IT industries no doubt don't like seeing reports of the U.S.-which fancies itself to be a technological juggernaut and, in some ways, is -- finishing in the second tier of countries in terms of broadband speeds. At the same time, this administration is philosophically more inclined to engage in big social projects than its immediate predecessors. Throw in the need for the nation to spend its way out of recession, as seen in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (and its broadband stimulus element), and you have the basic ingredients for massive broadband investments.

That doesn't necessarily speak to the smart grid part of the picture, however. But keep in mind that the energy and telecommunications industries are familiar with each other, based on a key commonality: A presence in most of the homes and businesses in the United States. Over the past several years, the energy industry has used the telecommunications network to drastically cut down on truck rolls through electronic meter reading. It's also toyed with being a telecom provider itself through broadband over powerline (BPL) efforts, which have not taken off.

Those signing the letter to the president recognize that any business initiative that touches just about every home in the nation by definition involves big bucks. Indeed, BusinessWeek points out that one of the companies signing the letter is the venture capital firm of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, which is in business to find promising companies and sectors.

Of course, it's common for big companies to put money into a nascent technology in the hopes that it takes off. It is pretty clear, though, that in this case, the stars are aligning for an integration or partial merger of the two industries.

This is the context of the letter, which makes two interrelated but subtly different statements: The first is that this who's who of companies recognizes that smart grid is one of the bigger of several next big next things coming down the pike-and that they want the administration and everyone else to know that they feel this way.

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