Aneesh Chopra may be stepping down as the nation’s first federal CTO, but his idea of a “Green Button” system to standardize smart consumer energy data across the nation lives on. Smart meter hardware and software vendor Aclara is the latest to join in, announcing last week (PDF) that it’s enabling Green Button data download for Pepco’s customer energy web portal, set to be rolled out to its 1.9 million customers over the coming years.

By April, Aclara says it will offer green button capability to the other 20 or so utility customers now using its customer presentment software, including Avista, Wisconsin Public Service, DTE Energy, Dominion Power and Duke Energy. While it hasn’t announced any customers beyond Pepco, Sempra companies Southern California Gas and San Diego Gas & Electric were likely partners, Robert DiBella, product manager for consumer engagement products, said in an interview this week.

Beyond Pepco, California’s big three utilities and Texas’ Oncor and CenterPoint have been the first to jump on the green button bandwagon, launched in September by Chopra’s Office of Science and Technology Policy. Chopra challenged utilities to agree on a standard format for sharing customers’ energy data, so customers can download, analyze, and ship it to third parties of their choosing, no matter what state they’re in.

Pacific Gas & Electric and SDG&E have started providing green button downloads on their customer Web sites, with help from startups including Tendril and Opower. (Both utilities are also using or plan to start using Aclara’s web presentment software, by the way.) In Texas, Oncor and CenterPoint are planning their green button data to run over the Smart Meter Texas portal, a statewide customer-utility platform built by IBM and run by ERCOT, the state’s grid operator.  

Pepco was the final utility to take up the first Green Button challenge last year, and now we know how it’s going to deliver it. Esco Technologies, Aclara’s parent company, brought in the expertise of utility consultant and recent acquisition Xtensible Solutions to help with the integration, DiBella said.

Aclara uses tricks like “on-demand data transfer,” or only uploading utility data to its cloud when it needs it, rather than in huge nightly batches, to ease the back-end integration burden, he said. On the front end, it packages data into customer-friendly formats, a field that has dozens of competitors seeking the magic formula to get people involved in their energy profiles.

It’s hard to get people to care about such a low-budget item as power bills, so companies have been trying “push” methods like emails and text message alerts, or “choice architecture” methods that help guide people to make the best decisions -- mainly by choosing them in advance and presenting them to people as a yes-no option, rather than as a confusing list. DiBella said that roughly 1 million of Aclara's 8 million web-enabled utility customers actively engage with their portals, though it's hoping to raise that over time.

Once the data’s available, startups like Simple Energy and others can ask customers for permission to look at it, analyze it, and present it back to them in new and innovative ways. Facebook and Opower are working on an energy data social media strategy, and lots of startups promise neighbor-to-neighbor comparisons, contests and other tricks to get people involved -- all while presumably keeping personal data protected from snoops.

Aclara has hundreds of utilities using its smart meter technology, most of them smaller ones, but it’s also doing a lot of business on the customer-facing software side, with 15 of the top 25 consumer engagement portal deployments in the country, according to a September study.

Those customers include Duke Energy, which is using Aclara’s software to link about 70,000 Cincinnati area customers to their Echelon smart meters. Duke has been slower to roll out smart meters in its other territories, and has run into trouble with Indiana state regulators over the cost of the project, compared to the benefit to the customer. Providing useful energy data could help utilities assuage state regulators’ concerns on that front.

Of course, with the green button standard just now emerging, “I don’t think anyone’s gotten that far with it,” Di Bella said. “I think we’ll see a lot in the world of mobile apps coming up, because they seem to get done faster.” Pretty much every home energy management startup has iPhone and/or Android apps that could incorporate Green Button data with relative ease, either as the simple comma-separated values files that it now comes in, or via XML, as utilities have promised to deliver later this year.

As for building third-party applications to do interesting things with green button data, Tendril recently launched a developers' platform for the purpose, and we saw some green button apps at last month’s Cleanweb Hackathon in New York. In the coming months, watch out for Opower and Honeywell: the two were showing off smart thermostat-smartphone technology at DistribuTECH that is likely to incorporate Green Button functionality pretty soon.