Green Button Initiative: Great Start, More to Do

tl;dr: Data about energy consumption = good! Data about rate plans plus meaningful incentives = even better!

I know, I know, I’ve been in absentia from this blog lately: Blame the month of January, in which entrepreneurs emerge from hiding to pitch investors all at once, like cicadas from the earth. As slammed as I am, here’s a quick word on an encouraging smart grid development from a couple weeks back.

At a California event on January 18, U.S. CTO Aneesh Chopra unveiled the first implementations of the Green Button initiative, in which utilities make smart meter data available online for customers via an eponymous button on their web sites. Utility behemoths PG&E and SDG&E debuted the scheme, sharing data in spreadsheet form (for humans) and via the recently-ratified Energy Services Provider Interface standard (for third-party apps). Right on cue, software developers including Tendril and Simple Energy showed how they could import Green Button data into their apps, like energy dashboards and competitions.

Having bemoaned the smart grid’s comedy of errors in the past, I think this could mark a turning point where utilities have been successfully pressured into customer-friendliness. Utilities have no reputation for transparency, but in the wake of billions of dollars in taxpayer-subsidized smart meter rollouts, they’re under pressure to show regulators and ratepayers that all that money is buying something useful (especially as some state regulators continue to challenge smart meter benefits, like in Connecticut recently). And bingo: A treasure trove of data for creative app developers – who previously had to come up with their own screen-scraping code for each individual utility – in record time, only a few months after Chopra challenged utilities to adopt the scheme.

Green Button data is a good start, and I’m excited to see what the likes of Opower, Efficiency 2.0, Simple Energy, and others do with it. To achieve the potential, however, I think two more ingredients are needed:

  • Standardized rate plan info. Utility rate plans are byzantine structures that change frequently. Without knowing what rate plan a customer is on and what its specifics are (critical peak tariff? demand charge? prepaid?), apps can do little more than regurgitate back hard-to-parse kWh consumption data. Nearly every app focused on energy consumption has this need; I hear pitch after pitch from start-ups who have to address it by burning resources to reverse-engineer the same utility bills. So I’d like to see the U.S. CTO’s bully pulpit used once more, this time challenging utilities to develop a standard data schema for rate plans and to provide up-to-date descriptions online in machine-readable form.
  • Incentives that can compete for mindshare. A couple weeks prior to the Green Button launch, SDG&E announced the results of its pilot Biggest Energy Saver competition (patterned after a similar effort launched earlier in Texas). The good news is that consumers who interacted with a social game as part of the competition saved twice as much as those who didn’t: Score one for energy apps. The bad news is that the winner – one Erica Faunce of Lakeside, CA, who cut her electricity usage by a whopping 46.5% – won… a laptop. In my view, more heavyweight incentives will be required to make apps based on Green Button data engage consumers en masse – we’re competing with Powerball for attention here!

A week after the Green Button reveal, Chopra announced that he’s resigning from the U.S. CTO position (he’s tipped for a VA lieutenant governor run). Aneesh got a ton done in a short amount of time, aided in no small part by his outsized personality. Here’s hoping his successor is equally capable – and willing to take up the gauntlet for energy efficiency.

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