Many people in the information technology business wonder if there's a Moore's Law for green technology--a way to rapidly speed up innovation and product performance. Clean-energy-related technologies do indeed improve with more investment in research and higher deployment. But the pace of change is much longer in energy because of the size of the industry, the money required to launch new technologies, and the dependence on government policies, which tend to move slowly.
Even with those big differences between IT and energy, the large IT and Web companies have been moving into different corners of energy, either investing directly in renewable energy or trying to develop products for sale to improve energy efficiency.
Intel is developing smart-grid technology to make the grid more efficient. Here is a prototype of a home energy control and management panel, where a person can monitor electricity consumption in detail, control networked appliances, and schedule heating and cooling. Intel, which released a reference design for the panel in October, is also trying to sell its chips to other companies making home energy management gadgets.
Like other large software and hardware providers, Microsoft has a business unit focused on selling to utilities, many of which are investing to make energy delivery more efficient.
Part of that effort includes Hohm, a Web application for consumers to track energy use and get recommendations on how to improve efficiency at home. Microsoft has signed a few deals with utilities to feed energy usage directly into Hohm. But it's also trying to connect to home energy monitors that don't require a smart meter. Earlier this year, it announced a deal with the maker of the PowerCost Monitor, which is now making a Wi-Fi gateway to transmit electric meter data to Hohm via a home broadband connection. People can view real-time electricity usage and get historical data to better understand how much different energy appliances use.
Competing neck-and-neck with Microsoft for Web-based home energy monitoring is Google. Its PowerMeter Web application gives people a real-time read-out of electricity usage and, with the aid of a smart meter, can give details on what different "plug loads"--appliances, electronics, etc.--use in a home. Google says that it intends to expand the capabilities of PowerMeter over time to monitor gas and water, to potentially schedule electric vehicle charging, and participate in utility demand response programs.
Cisco is aggressively moving into the smart grid with an array of products, including networking gear for substations and data center equipment to process data coming in from sensors and smart meters on the electric grid. In September it bought wireless sensor company Arch Rock, which is expected to become part of its grid networking product line.
One of its big utility deals is with Duke Energy, through which Cisco is supplying networking equipment as well as a home energy controller, pictured here. It's one of several home energy management systems geared at giving consumers more data on energy usage and electricity rates as they change during the day.
IBM is involved in smart grid projects with utilities around the world, selling hardware and software as well as offering consulting expertise in the utility industry.
Its research group is also active in renewable energy such as solar power, including a few efforts to develop materials for thin-film solar cells. One project done with Harvard University is the Clean Energy Project of the World Community Grid. In this work, computing power from around the world is coordinated to calculate how good certain inexpensive organic materials would be for use in solar cells.
Business application provider SAP, like its competitor Oracle, has a significant product line around applications for utilities. SAP has gone further and has developed a corporate sustainability dashboard for all types of businesses, which lets people track various sustainability "metrics." For example, a company can measure and manage energy usage, carbon emissions, and waste. Here is a screen from SAP's annual sustainability report, based on its Business Objects software, showing its progress in meeting carbon reduction goals.