It’s a Small World: GE, Google Maps to Draw a Roadmap for a Better Power Grid

February 25, 2013

Last month, yet another massive storm gathered over the Northeast, dumped several feet of snow from Connecticut to Maine, and plunged thousands of locals into freezing darkness. Although we can’t yet engineer weather, we can use software engineering to soften its blows.

Internet companies like Google have long known that the value of their networks grows in proportion to the number of their users. This is called Metcalfe’s law. The same logic applies to industrial networks like power grids. The combination of the Internet and infrastructure could now yield billions in savings for utilities and better service for their customers.

Last week GE, which knows a lot about infrastructure, announced that it would feed data from Google Maps to a suite of GE software applications designed to manage power grids, water systems, gas pipelines, telecoms and other industrial networks. The apps suite, called Smallworld, helps customers visualize their network assets, detect vulnerable spots, and cut response times when storms like Nemo strike.


#IndustrialInternet: This screenshot from Smallworld shows an underground medium voltage cable (blue line), meters in homes, a substation, and other connected hardware.

The power grid is a good example of how Smallworld works. GE says that apps tap Google’s rich mapping data environment (Google Maps has 1 billion monthly users), and help utility maintenance teams pinpoint and fix problems before they escalate, and respond to and repair outages faster. GE’s intelligent power management systems like Grid IQ Insight already gather data from smart meters in homes, sensors in transformers, a NASA satellite, and even Twitter to predict and prevent power outages. The Google-powered Smallworld world will provide extra context.

Ordinary consumers can benefit too. Bryan Friehauf, a software products leader from GE Digital Energy, told Wired that utilities could color code outage maps based on estimated repair times and share them with the public. “You’ll know whether to sit tight, or to start looking for a hotel to spend the night,” Friehauf told the magazine.

GE estimates that Industrial Internet tools like Grid IQ and Smallworld could save customers tens of billions by improving performance of their assets by just 1 percent. The Industrial Internet is a global network connecting people, machines, and data.GE is investing $1 billion in Industrial Internet applications.

The beauty of Smallworld is that the apps work with existing network hardware. “Utilities do not need to purchase dedicated equipment to implement the software,” Friehauf says. Field operators can pull up Smallworld on their smartphones. GE will use Google’s Android platform to power the apps.

Smallworld matters for another reason. The global demand for electricity may grow by as much as 70 percent by 2035, yet few countries are ready to spend many billions of dollars to upgrade their infrastructure. This means that the grid must get more efficient to cope. The Industrial Internet and tools like Grid IQ and Smallworld are helping today’s technology to deal with tomorrow’s demands.