15 Mar 2012

Consumer energy data from the ‘Green Button': how long before adoptions match the hype?

Written by Jim Pierobon

The White House wants it. Some California utilities get it. But will more than a few U.S. utilities sign on to help ratepayers better understand how they use electricity with one-click access to their data?

One year after the Obama Administration began talking about the idea, and in the roughly six months since it formally issued a challenge to industry followed by the launch hoopla in January, three California utilities’ have deployed “Green Button” initiatives for their approximately 10 million customers combined.

This icon connects utility and other customers to an exciting new world of energy self-management. CREDIT: WhiteHouse.gov

With one click of a button similar to the one in this post, utility customers are supposed to be able to easily download their energy consumption data in an easy-to-read format on utilities AND third-parties’ web sites, once they have smart meters installed that is backed by an advanced metering infrastructure (AMI).

Questions about it were a dubious undercurrent and questions at this year’s ARPA-E Innovation Summit just outside of Washington, DC: How long it will take a lot more energy utilities and other network protocols to take the Green Button beyond a “common sense idea” and deliver on the huge potential for putting energy consumption data at consumers’ fingertips?

After such a high-powered launch, the void of information, on the web and elsewhere, is head-scratching. One problem may be the resignation of U.S. “Chief Technology Officer” Aneesh Chopra in late January. He has since embarked for Richmond, Virginia ostensibly to begin preparing a run for Lieutenant Governor in 2014.

Who is responsible for the Green Button initiative now? It is not clear. On March 9, the White House announced Chopra’s successor will be Todd Park who has been the CTO at the Department of Health and Human Services. Calls and emails into the office of Nick Sinai, Senior Advisor to Chopra’s office, went unanswered.

For now, questions are being fielded by R. Scott Crowder III a senior research engineer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado. Crowder told The Energy Fix that utilities and their partners have “firm commitments” from utilities to activate another 7 million customer accounts by year-end 2012.

Green Button’s open-source software enables utilities to write their own code to synchronize with the Green Button platform.

Pacific Gas & Electric, San Diego Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison are launched their Green Button programs in January. Other utilities, including Glendale Power & Light in California, Oncor and CenterPoint in Texas and Pepco Holdings in Maryland, DC and Delaware, are rumored to be preparing their offerings.

Neither Oncor nor Pepco responded to emails about their plans. Oncor is said to be nearing the completion of smart meter installations throughout its service territory in north Texas.

CenterPoint spokeswoman Leticia Lowe responded: “We believe that by standardizing energy usage data in a more easy to use format will make it easier for consumers to use and share with third-party developers who can  create innovative new products.”

Ms. Lowe’s curious choice of words — “in a more easy to use format” — suggests CenterPoint has a better ‘mouse trap.’ We shall see.

The Green Button initiative is important because it is the most broad-based plan to date that takes energy data and standardizes the format of it, opens it up (while also providing security) and makes it readily available to consumers. Data increasingly is treated this way on the web, but for other sectors, open access to data isn’t prevalent. Standardizing and freeing the data can create an ecosystem for developers to use that data to create apps that can deliver new services and products.

The Internet has thrived because of open data and standardized information systems. Delivering that energy data directly back to consumers is also important because it can lead to energy efficiency measures and can help change a consumers’ energy consumption behavior.

Chopra challenged the utility sector to quickly work at offering customers standardized and easy access to their own energy information. “Quickly” is subject to much interpretation, especially now that he’s left the White House.

The California utilities moved on this quickly (at least by public service commission standards) largely because the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) last year ordered the three aforementioned utilities to follow its proposed ruling on privacy, security and access to energy data. It shouldn’t be lost on anyone that California’s high electricity rates are a real economic — and political — motivator.

Other utility commissions should take note. One can seldom depend on energy utilities doing anything on their own initiative. Now, without the bully pulpit at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, let’s hope the Green Button doesn’t wither and fall off the ‘vine.’

“I don’t foresee any impact,” said Pike Research smart grid research director Bob Gohn in an interview with the FierceSmartGrid blog. “Though (Chopra) has been a strong advocate for smart grid investments, the role of the federal government on the smart grid build out will diminish anyway as the stimulus money winds down this year and into 2013.”

Added Gohn: “The biggest influence on smart grid rollout is state-level regulatory issues, whether they be smart meter and/or RPS mandates on one hand, or strong push-back against allowing IOUs (investor-owned utilities) to get cost recovery for these investments on the other hand.”

Keep an eye on announcements by companies such as People Power headquartered in the San Francisco Bay Area and active in China and Japan. This start-up is working on partnerships with original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to embed their energy management software in offerings by utilities and service providers.

People Power recently won a contest sponsored by AT&T for the best energy management application. It also snared GE Eco-Imagination award for behavioral science based controls of energy use.

Go to this wiki by the U.S. National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) for a heavy but illuminating dose of how this is all supposed to work.

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