California leads the nation in green policies and programs, from its decades-long battle to keep per-capita energy consumption flat via efficiency (accomplished), to getting one-third of its power from renewable resources (still in the works). It’s also a leader in smart grid, with more than 16 million smart electric and gas meters deployed by its big three investor-owned utilities, and millions more coming from municipal utilities around the state.

Just how all that data is sorted, collected and managed has been a hot-button topic. The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) has spent the past few years working on rules for protecting the privacy and security of customer data collected by smart meters, in-home energy devices, demand response programs and other forms of smart grid technology.

At the same time, the CPUC has been trying to make smart grid data as open and accessible as possible -- primarily to the customers who own the data, but more broadly to as wide a set of third-party software, hardware and service providers as possible, to jumpstart a market for smart grid-to-home energy efficiency.

Last month saw a new proposal from the CPUC for an “Energy Data Center” (PDF) that could help solve the problem. Essentially, authors Audrey Lee and Marzia Zafar propose a central database to hold all the state’s smart grid data, scrubbed or “anonymized” to protect individual privacy, but otherwise open and available to all comers to do with as they wish. The CPUC issued a “scoping ruling” this week (PDF) to set the terms for public comment and involvement in the discussion.

The Energy Data Center is a fascinating concept, and in an important market for setting smart grid trends and standards. The CPUC has created an intricate set of categories for data in its smart grid privacy and security proceedings, but has largely excluded “aggregated data that does not contain personally identifiable information” from its strictest protections -- or restrictions, depending on your point of view.

Indeed, one of the key concepts is to make this anonymized bulk data available to the public, whether for a curious customer or a dedicated research team. But the CPUC’s proposal also lays out several use cases that would require the Energy Data Center to handle non-scrubbed data -- such as smart meter reads with a customer name or address attached -- in more secure ways.

For example, the CPUC is already providing non-anonymized data to state universities or local governments via nondisclosure agreements, the paper noted. The Energy Data Center would ideally be a central repository of that secured, private data, as well as a clearinghouse for NDA-bound research partners to access it, analyze it, and churn out reports -- again, with any public disclosures scrubbed of personal identifiers.

Indeed, because the CPUC is only allowed to enter into NDAs with other government entities, the Energy Data Center itself will have to be hosted by a government player, such as a University of California campus, the paper noted. That means that the CPUC needs to hash out the rules for what it’s legally allowed to do to promote the creation of an Energy Data Center before it proceeds. In other words, this thing could take years.

Where’s all of the state’s smart grid data going now? Today, it’s pretty much contained on the servers and storage devices of the utility and its various smart grid vendors. But the sheer scale of data has pushed the meter vendors into partnerships with big data experts. Itron is working with IBM and Teradata on a data center to store and manage the flood of data coming from its multi-million-meter deployment with Southern California Edison, for example, and Silver Spring Networks, the startup that networks smart meters for PG&E, and Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) is working on big data with investor and partner EMC.

At the same time, meter data management (MDM) providers in the California market, such as Itron, Ecologic Analytics (now owned by Toshiba’s Landis+Gyr) and Aclara, are all key players in converting smart meter data to a multitude of formats and functions, including customer presentment. No doubt they’ll be working closely with utility partners on whatever level of scrubbed, anonymized data the proposed Energy Data Center might require.

Beyond just managing the flood, California’s utilities are striving to squeeze more value out of their smart meter deployments. The CPUC has been putting pressure on PG&E, SCE and SDG&E to start turning on their meter-to-home ZigBee radios, to start providing customer data via web portal and Green Button download, and to start making the back-end IT changes that will allow third-party devices and software to link up with whatever platforms and marketplaces emerge for the state’s smart-metered customers. 

Indeed, the CPUC’s briefing paper takes a pretty adversarial tone to utilities regarding their data-sharing ways to date:

Currently, many organizations request access to customer usage information to research customer usage patterns and to measure the effectiveness of various State and Commission energy-related programs, such as energy efficiency and demand response. Yet, such information is not readily available. When a utility does make it available, it is often out of scope, aggregated beyond what is necessary to protect customer privacy and not useful to the requestors, and outdated. An ongoing concern is whether, and to what extent if any, the utilities act against the interests or wishes of the customer and erect barriers to limit the opportunity for authorized third parties to obtain customer usage information. An additional concern is whether the utility acts as barrier against the sharing of aggregated data with governmental organizations that are seeking data for research or operational purposes.

What might a California Energy Data Center look like? Texas may provide a model with its Smart Meter Texas portal, where the state’s smart metered utilities share information with customers via a common platform run via the state’s grid operator, ERCOT. Of course, Texas also allows retail electricity providers in its deregulated market to provide their own customer web portals, iPhone thermostat control apps, text-message information alerts, Green Button data downloads, and the like.

California’s market, while not competitive like Texas', is still a bit of a hodgepodge. Beyond the state’s big three investor-owned utilities, there are big municipal utilities like SMUD, or Glendale and Burbank in the San Fernando Valley, collectively adding millions more smart meters to the state’s tally. Big natural gas provider Southern California Gas has embarked on its own 1.5 million smart meter upgrade with partners including Itron, Aclara and Capgemini.

If the CPUC’s decisions so far are any guide, it’s likely that all of these entities will be contributing to the Energy Data Center. The CPUC ruled in August that municipal utilities and natural gas providers were subject to the same data privacy and security rules as were the big three IOUs, although the issue is still being contested by some parties.