Why Google isn't evil

Everyone's talking about reducing the amount of energy we consume. But the fact is, most people don't know how much electricity they use until they're billed, which makes it difficult to make informed choices.

Google.org is proposing equipping every electric device with a meter, then linking it to a Google service that tells you these numbers in real time. 'PowerMeter', a plug-in being tested for iGoogle, will save you five to 15 per cent on your monthly bill, Google claims, and could reduce carbon emissions as much as taking one car off the road for every six households involved.

Another Google.org project is addressing the reduction of emissions from cars themselves. RechargeIT is aimed at measuring the performance of plug-in hybrid cars with recording devices more effectively. Google claims that most measurements of hybrids are idealistic and often not taken in real-world driving conditions.

By measuring hybrid cars' performance vis-à-vis conventional cars, and making the information available to the public, the benefits of plug-ins will be more widely recognised, it argues.

Google is trying to keep its own house in order too. The company's massive solar panel complex in Mountain View is well-known, and hybrid vehicles are being plugged into these panels. Google is testing these cars with vehicle-to-grid (V2G) technology, seeing if they can be used as a 'battery' from the company's electricity grid. The idea is to turn plug-in hybrids into power suppliers, letting car owners avoid brown-outs and get electricity during peak hours.

Google.org's largest grants and investments are also being used to develop alternative energies. For instance, Makani Power, a designer of high-altitude power devices, has received a whopping $15million from the organisation. While low altitude wind power is an inconsistent source of energy, up high it's a different matter.

Since the power of wind is related to the cube of its velocity, wind that blows slightly faster contains far more energy. Makani remains tight-lipped about its devices, which reportedly resemble wing-shaped kites, but in theory they promise a new age of cheap and abundant energy.

Poor communities

Google has declared education for the developing world as a major focus of its philanthropic efforts, offering multi-million dollar grants to organisations in Africa and Asia. Again, this is informed by the notion that knowledge is power.

Google reasons that once enough people in a community are educated, and have easy access to information, they can bring accountability to a government's projects in their community. For instance, HaKiElimu, a Tanzanian educational non-profit organisation is using a $1.8million Google grant to distribute brochures and handbooks that teach people how to monitor and analyse government policies.

Meanwhile in India, Pratham is working with a $2million grant to do assessments of the education sector, a daunting task for a country numbering one billion people. For huge countries like India, which sports a space program but can't even feed much of its rural population, messy bureaucracy means that tackling poverty has been slow and cumbersome.

For Africa, a continent mired by strife for a century, a lack of information keeps communities in the dark. Whether Google can plug the knowledge gap remains to be seen, since most of its projects are still in development. But the company's vast funds, expertise and far reach across the world could spell good news for future generations in some of the world's poorest countries.