The “Green Button” Energy Data Movement Grows Up

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Back in September 2011, then U.S. CTO Aneesh Chopra and I convened the CIOs of the three large California electric utilities, along with colleagues from the Energy and Commerce Departments. At a meeting in the Bay Area, all three CIOs agreed to a pilot project to make detailed energy data available for download by their customers.

The California utility companies had been working for years to develop a data standard that would allow customers to download and transfer their own energy data. Let’s be honest — energy data by itself isn’t very exciting — but what is exciting are the innovations that use that data. Armed with information about their energy usage, customers can more easily use virtual energy audit software, shop for solar, and reduce their energy bills.

With our encouragement and support, Pacific Gas & Electric and San Diego Gas & Electric launched within 90 days, and Southern California Edison shortly thereafter. Over time, many other utilities across the country have also pledged to adopt the common standard for energy data export and transfer. Now, three and a half years later, over 100 million Americans have access to what is known as “Green Button” data.

What is “Green Button,” and why does it matter to customers? It’s really shorthand for three complementary things:

1. The policy idea that customers deserve access to their own energy data. Your rate-payer (and sometimes tax-payer) dollars pay for smart meters and smart grid technologies — why shouldn’t you be able to view, download, and transmit your own energy data to whoever you want? The Obama administration has made this a clear policy principle in U.S. smart grid policy, building off the ideas in the FCC’s National Broadband Plan. So have state regulatory commissions and local governments. This concept is part of the larger Obama administration focus on data accessibility and portability through its My Data Initiatives.

2. An informal but collaborative public private partnership between federal government, state regulators, utilities, and the innovation community to make data available for customers — in a way that is both secure and private, while still useful for customers and the apps and services they trust. Recognizing that privacy is an important issue, the federal government convened industry, state regulators, and privacy advocates to develop a voluntary privacy code of conduct that President Obama recently highlighted.

3. An actual data standard for making the data standard and machine-readable, either as a downloaded XML file or through an API. Green Button is an industry-developed standard, created in an open and consensus-based process.

So what’s next for the Green Button initiative?

Last Friday, at San Diego Gas & Electric’s Energy Innovation Center, I was honored to speak at an event organized by the Department of Energy and the National Institute of Standards and Technology to highlight the progress of the Green Button ecosystem, including the launch of the Green Button Alliance, a new industry consortium designed to accelerate adoption of the Green Button standard and administer testing and certification programs to make it easier for a developer to a write a single app that works across many utilities.

At the event, utility executives discussed their progress with Green Button and outlined their product roadmaps. I was excited to see how companies like C3 Energy and Schneider Electric are incorporating the Green Button standard into their software products at a massive scale.

PG&E’s Andrew Green talked about the plans to use Green Button Connect My Data with modern Internet technologies (RESTful APIs and OAuth2.0) later this year to make it easier for you to securely send your energy data to a solar or energy efficiency company on a one-time or recurring basis.

Canada has entered the game too. London Hydro CIO Syed Mir talked about how his utility has implemented Green Button and also moved to the Google cloud, and how the Green Button standard and others could be the basis of smart thermostats and other smart home technologies.

But it isn’t just the big guys. Smaller app companies showcased creative products built on Green Button data. John Horn, an analyst at the non-profit Center for Sustainable Energy, explained that he built a Green Button-enabled solar calculator app in less than 50 hours. His solar calculator lets you upload your Green Button energy usage data, and uses open data from the Department of Energy about rates and solar irradiance to give you an accurate prediction of your ROI if you install solar.

U.S. CTO Megan Smith even made an appearance virtually with inspiring video remarks, thanking industry for collaborating together to make Green Button energy data useful across a range of applications — from household energy usage competitions on Facebook to high-end data analytics in commercial buildings.

Stay tuned. With a third annual Energy Datapalooza expected later this year, we’re just beginning to see the innovation that can emerge from Green Button data.

Nick Sinai is an inaugural Walter Shorenstein Media and Democracy Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. Nick is also a Venture Partner at Insight Venture Partners, a global software, data, and technology venture capital and private equity firm. He is a former U.S. Deputy Chief Technology Officer at the White House. Prior to joining the Obama administration, Nick was a venture capitalist at Lehman Brothers Venture Partners (now Tenaya Capital) and previously, Polaris Partners.

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