Climate

The Green Button: White House Makes The Right Call On Energy Data

by Adam James

Last week, the White House unveiled a new program called the Green Button Initiative. So what the heck is the Green Button?

Quite literally, it is a green button on a utility’s website that allows consumers to download their energy consumption data in an easy-to-understand format. There are two exciting outcomes from this industry-led initiative:

  • For the first time, consumers can have the kind of access to their energy data that they have with online banking. This will allow people to save money while easing the demand-side burden on the grid.
  • This neatly sidesteps the legal questions around 3rd party access to information since customers can now transmit data themselves directly to innovative energy management companies.

Before going into too much detail on these two points, it is helpful to put this breakthrough in context. The Green Button is a milestone in a much larger story about transparency and empowering citizens, a narrative which resonates with Americans who want to build a future around sustainability and equity.

Seeing the Big Picture

Rewind to January 20th, 2009. A newly minted President Obama unveiled his top priorities for America that boldly included a commitment to transparency, participation, and collaboration within the Government. This was one of his campaign pledges that helped bring younger voters to the ballot box.

In August 2010, President Obama announced the creation of the “blue button” which allows individuals to download their personalized healthcare information. This was a huge step forward for cutting through red tape and increasing Americans’ access to the information that would make their lives easier.

In September 2011, Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra challenged the energy industry to create a “green button” and enhance consumer access to energy consumption data. This recommendation followed the basic trajectory of the Framework for a 21st Century Grid put forward in June 2011, which urged the adoption of policies which would help consumers “save energy, ensure privacy, and shrink bills.”

The launch of the “green button” marks a broad commitment from the Obama Administration to open and transparent government, and for building a sustainable energy future.

Accessing Energy Data Empowers Consumers in Every Sector

The Energy Information Agency projects that electricity consumption will increase an average of 0.8% per year from 3,879 billion KWh to 4,775 billion KWh in 2035. Providing new supply-side solutions with renewable energy will be essential, but equally important will be changing demand-side consumption patterns. As I have argued before, consumer access to data has many complex and challenging issues, and how it will likely dictate a large portion of the changes that occur in the demand-side market.

In the residential market, homeowners have a strong incentive (i.e. saving money on energy bills) to alter their consumption patterns. However, without easy and understandable access to their data, and the tools to use that data effectively, this task is incredibly difficult. The average American probably won’t be going to their local ISO/RTO and cross-checking real time prices against their estimated consumption at peak hours. But they might be willing to make a few dollars by clicking “yes” to an alert on their smartphone asking permission to float their thermometer by 2 degrees between 3:00 and 4:00pm.

Aggregated across the entire residential sector, the impact of these changes to consumer behavior is massive.

In the commercial and industrial market, the impact is even greater. Companies geting access to their data is important. But even more important is the ability to outsource that data to innovative 3rd party businesses that can provide energy management solutions. Rulings by public utility commissions have been loud on consumer privacy, but very quiet on 3rd party access — likely because the legal questions surrounding 3rd parties getting data directly from utilities creates complicated ownership and security issues.

The green button avoids this debate entirely by allowing consumers to download and then disseminate their information, making it the responsibility of the utility to secure the data and confirm identification — much like online banking.

The green button is not a mandate. Participation is entirely voluntary. And with fourteen utilities and nineteen companies on board so far, it is a testament to how public-private partnerships and industry led projects can create more choice for consumers.

Saving Money and Creating Economic Growth

The green button will save money and make life easier for Americans nationwide. It may also be the catalyst for innovative companies that can now predictably access energy data and provide tools for residential, commercial, and industrial players.

Decreasing energy use is a win-win. The average American spends $1,419 on electricity every year, and cutting back on these costs would allow people to put those dollars to work in their local economy or providing for their family.

On a larger scale, this will also help maintain the integrity of the electrical grid. Consumers ultimately carry the costs of an inefficient electricity system. The aggregated effect of changing demand-side consumption patterns, which the green button can enable, will allow our energy system to be more efficient, sustainable, and more profitable.

Adam James is a Special Assistant on the Energy Policy Team at the Center for American Progress.

3 Responses to The Green Button: White House Makes The Right Call On Energy Data

  1. This is a great idea, but the devil is in the details. Whether this works well or not depends on exactly which data the utilities agree to release and in what form.

    In my 2008 Congressional testimony before the joint economic committee I called for development of standardized metadata formats for utility rates, which would allow the kind of 3rd party innovation described above. If the utilities only release consumption data, and aggregate them in ways that make it hard to glean meaning from them, then the potential benefits from such efforts will be substantially reduced.

    So I applaud the administration for taking this step, but we’re a long way from capturing the full potential of such efforts.

    2008. Testimony of Jonathan Koomey, Ph.D. for a hearing on “Efficiency: The Hidden Secret to Solving Our Energy Crisis”. Joint Economic Committee of the U.S. Congress. U.S. Congress. Washington, DC: U.S. Congress. July 30.

  2. Jackman says:

    re: “But they might be willing to make a few dollars by clicking “yes” to an alert on their smartphone asking permission to float their thermometer by 2 degrees between 3:00 and 4:00pm.”

    So this assumes that the utility company has direct access to my home’s thermostat and can drop my temp by 2 degrees while I’m not home.

    Once such access and control is handed over to the utilities and the Gov’t bureaucrats, how many months will go by before they stop asking for my permission to lower my energy usage?

    I’ll be going off the grid before I let our politicians run my household.

  3. Leif says:

    Jackman, did you miss the “voluntary” part?