The U.S. House of Representatives is debating whether to require utilities to give real-time energy consumption data to consumers and companies like Google, Intel, Microsoft and Tendril Networks that want to build services around this data.
In California, the issue is already decided: utilities must hand it over.
The California Public Utilities Commission has adopted a policy that utilities must give access to energy consumption data to individual consumers and their appointed third-party providers by the end of 2010 and then provide the data in a somewhat real-time manner by the end of 2011.
"This commission has a policy of ensuring that customers and their authorized third parties have access to customer information: usage, price, bills, etc.," said Dian Grueneich, a CPUC commissioner, in an interview. "We are committed to implementing regulations to make that happen. You do have the right to have access to that information."
The ruling will likely pave the way for a wide variety of commercial and residential energy services in the Golden State. A large number of companies in the past few years have created in-home energy consoles, iPhone apps, smart thermostats and automated energy management systems. These energy management systems can cut power consumption by 5 to 15 percent, many companies assert, by finally giving consumers and businesses a view into how much power they actually consume and when they consume it.
Up until now, the problem has been that the data has not been available. Microsoft's Hohm, for instance, can create a simulated model of your home and provide you with an ideal and realistic estimate of your power consumption, along with advice on how to bring those numbers down. Unfortunately, it can't tell you how much power you've used in the last five minutes.
With the CPUC's policy, Microsoft can, potentially, transform Hohm into an energy management system that turns the thermostat up and down (within a reasonable temperature range) to reduce air conditioning or heating bills.
Utilities like PG&E have currently control over that data. The large investor-owned utilities have already started to move toward making the data available. PG&E, for instance, has said it may start a program in the near future in which consumers could get their data on energy consumption on a day-after basis.
Whether or not reductions in the 5 to 15 percent range are possible, getting the data out is a necessary first step.
"If your number-one priority, like in California, is energy efficiency, you'd better have in place real solid rules for getting access to that information," Grueneich said, adding that buying power is sort of like shopping in a grocery store where none of the products have prices on them and your bill is calculated by an estimate on what your neighbors probably bought.
While the ruling has the force of law, the CPUC still has to pass regulations to implement it -- and that won't be easy. What services require power and water consumption data? Who is an authorized provider? How do they get access to the data? In 2010, before real-time rules kick in, can utilities provide weekly or monthly services, or do they need to provide next-day data?
"There are legitimate privacy/confidentiality/security issues that the commission will take very seriously. This is data that is not to be released without customer authorization," she said. "We are going to have to be careful what the rules are. We could get a backlash if we have three or four bad examples."
The CPUC will likely also have to tackle the question of compensating the utilities for collecting and storing the data.
Meanwhile, the CPUC has also ruled that utilities can add gains from so-called behavior change programs to their energy efficiency goals. These programs attempt to reduce power consumption by changing the behavior of consumers. The most prominent company in this field so far is Opower, which compares your power consumption with the power consumption of similarly situated neighbors. It then puts a paper note bearing the results of the analysis inside your next utility bill.
OPower has found that consumers who use more power than their neighbors will reduce their power consumption to hew more closely to the status quo. Think of it as Peer Pressure 2.0.
"It is powerful validation by the CPUC that behavior-based energy efficiency programs, like the ones we're running all over the country, deliver real energy savings, and do so in a very reliable and sustained fashion," said Sean Harrington, director of client solutions at Opower.
Additionally, this spring the CPUC will implement a social networking portal for building professionals and others to provide better information on its energy efficiency programs. Last year, the state said it would spend $3.1 billion on energy efficiency programs from 2010 to 2012.
"This is not going to buy oil from Saudi Arabia. That is going to projects in the state," Grueneich said. "It is a huge job growth area."