If you're still clutching your chest over that last sky-high electric bill and wondering how to keep it down next month, you'll be heartened to hear that help may be on the way from the company behind the world's largest search engine. Google this week announced that it's developing software called PowerMeter, which will let consumers check out their home energy use  in near real-time on their computers. The company says on its blog that it's working with  utility companies to ready for the market. No word on how long the testing will last before PowerMeter will be available for download.

PowerMeter will first be available through iGoogle, a Google service that lets you make a customized Web browser homepage. For those concerned about placing more information about their lives online for everyone to see, Google notes on its blog that it will not share personally identifying information with the user's utility company. Users will also be able to delete their energy data or ask their utility to stop sending data to Google PowerMeter at any time.

Google on its blog cites a 2006 Oxford University study that indicates that consumers who monitored their home energy use lowered their monthly bills by 5 to 15 percent "If half of America's households cut their energy demand by 10 percent," the  company adds, "it would be the equivalent of taking eight million cars off the road."

Homes will need to be equipped with so-called smart meters to take advantage of the program. These meters, which have been installed in about 40 million households worldwide, provide more detailed information about energy use than do normal meters and communicate directly with the utility company (no one needs to come to your home to read your meter). Google's  drive for such technology given that the search engine has invested in smart grid companies Germantown, Maryland-based Current Group and Redwood City, California-based Silver Spring Networks, Reuters U.K. reported.

Google's investments in energy conservation come as Congress hammers out an economic stimulus package poised to include billions of dollars for technology that will enable more efficient energy consumption as well as better monitoring of energy use. The Senate this week approved its $838 billion economic stimulus bill, which includes $4.5 billion for smart-grid related activities, including work to modernize the nation's electric grid, enhance security and reliability of it, perform energy storage research, development, demonstration and deployment, and provide worker training. Not to be outdone, the House's own $820 billion economic stimulus bill passed last week calls for $32 billion to transform the nation’s energy transmission, distribution, and production systems by allowing for a smarter and better grid and focusing investment in renewable technology. Negotiators will hammer out the differences between the two bills in a conference committee.

Of course, Google isn't the only tech company looking for a piece of the stimulus package. IBM in 2007 created the Global Intelligent Utility Network Coalition, a group of utility companies working with IBM to accelerate the adoption of smart grid technologies and business solutions throughout the world. Last week, the company announced a five-year, $90-million deal with National Electricity and Water Utilities—Enemalta Corporation and Water Services Corporation—to design and deliver a nationwide smart grid for the Republic of Malta. And earlier this week, Microsoft announced it will let its business customers see information about their energy consumption and impact on the environment via Microsoft Dynamics AX software.

It's unclear how much these tech giants are willing to clean up their own IT operations, according to Science First Inc., whose Solve Climate blog this week pointed out a BPM Forum study that concludes that, while IT workers are talking about the need for green IT, only about a quarter of those surveyed were actually embracing high standards that would force them to clean up their act.

Image of an EVB Energie AG smart meter courtesy of Sina Luckhardt