Last year, we covered a pilot project from California community energy provider Silicon Valley Clean Energy and startup UtilityAPI meant to make sharing smart-meter data between customers and approved third-party companies as easy as a few clicks of a mouse, instead of the utility paperwork and waiting-time-heavy ordeal it is today. 

Now that project, dubbed Data Hive, has officially launched amid a coronavirus pandemic that’s made doing business the old-fashioned way even more challenging than it used to be. 

As of March 30, Data Hive is available to the more than 270,000 residential and business customers of SVCE, the community-choice aggregator serving most of Santa Clara County. It also includes 38 approved energy services, solar and energy storage companies participating in the project, ranging from companies with nationwide reach, such as REC Solar, Stem and Enel X, to smaller regional solar PV installers or energy services providers. 

With a few clicks, SVCE customers can authorize one of these companies to obtain and analyze their historical and ongoing 15-minute smart-meter interval energy usage data. These are critical data sets for performing energy-efficiency audits, calculating the value of rooftop solar or behind-the-meter batteries, and a host of other tasks. 

This kind of fast and simple sharing of data, which legally belongs to the customer generating it, has been something that utilities have pointed to as an important benefit of their smart-meter deployments. It was also the impetus behind the Obama administration’s Green Button initiative to develop a common energy data standard for U.S. utilities and the subsequent Green Button Connect standard to allow ongoing streaming of data between customers and their chosen third-party vendors. 

But as we’ve noted in coverage over the years, things haven’t panned out that way. Each utility has implemented its own smart meter data-sharing programs in different ways and with varying degrees of sophistication. Even the most user-friendly still require customers to look up account numbers, fill out authorization forms, and wait for days or weeks for utilities to respond — or to reject their application, and start the process over. 

Even when authorization is completed, the data coming from utilities can vary widely in format and quality, even those built to Green Button standards.

“Some of the utilities do better than others in providing their customers’ data,” said Geoff Hancock, director of engineering for Calif.-based Verdera Partners, one of Data Hive’s approved third-party vendors. 

“But not all of them provide a download-data button, and even when they do, I’ve had experiences where pressing that button doesn’t lead to anything. Or it does, but you’re not sure what the units are — are they kW, kWh, kVAR? It’s unclear, and then you can’t use that data at all.” 

The value of opening up energy data bottlenecks 

UtilityAPI was founded in 2014 to solve these data problems, by integrating with utility back-office systems and translating their varying formats to standards useful for third parties. It now has integrated with more than 30 utilities and has more than 1,000 business customers using its service. 

Verdera has been using UtilityAPI’s services for years now, Hancock said, but he added, “I think the new program they have with Silicon Valley Clean Energy takes it a step further, for three reasons."

“The first one is that it’s free” — SVCE is covering UtilityAPI's usual per-meter fees for its data service to support the pilot project. 

Second, the new customer signup process is much simpler, allowing them to use their phone number or physical or email address as an identifier, rather than the utility account number normally required. That’s a feature enabled by SVCE, which has access to the Pacific Gas & Electric smart meters that connect its customers to the grid. 

Finally, “we don’t have to wait around as long for the customer to get that information to us. And we can analyze their data and get them recommendations a lot quicker. That ultimately saves them money, because we’re a consultant and we charge for our time.” 

One of the Data Hive project’s goals was to level the playing field for smaller companies that struggle to make use of utility smart-meter data, Aimee Bailey, SVCE’s director of decarbonization and grid innovation, said. “That was always a part of our rationale, to support these business providers, to help achieve our climate goals.”

“It certainly feels even more important now, with the situation with COVID-19,” Bailey said. “Our business community is really feeling some of the impacts.” 

Could better data-sharing help ease coronavirus constraints? 

Beyond its ongoing devastation to businesses being forced to close and lay off employees, the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted the traditional solar sales model of home visits and consultations, pushing many to turn to online approaches. Quick access to data that vendors need to custom-design solar and battery installations or efficiency upgrades could make this approach much simpler, Hancock said. 

“You don’t have to wait a month to get the data. You can do it in the moment. And that’s key — to do it in the moment, when the customer is engaged,” he said. “That’s true especially in this time, when you can’t go to their door.” 

Likewise, smooth and easy access to ongoing smart-meter data, which Data Hive also enables, could allow Verdera to analyze how well existing upgrades and installations are performing and make adjustments far more quickly, he said. “Normally I would have to wait 30 days or more for the next billing cycle to come out [to] check how a controls tweak resulted in some energy savings or not,” he said. With data coming in on a daily basis, by contrast, “I can make three or four tweaks in a week.” 

Shortening the wait time for energy data could be immensely valuable in speeding up the lags between identifying and executing on energy-saving measures of all kinds, UtilityAPI CEO Devin Hampton said. 

While Data Hive has just launched — the partners will host a webinar on Wednesday for interested customers — UtilityAPI is already working with other utilities interested in replicating it in their jurisdictions, Hampton said. 

“We built this software to be drop-in software; any [utility or energy provider] should be able to implement it with a minimal setup,” he said. “It should be seamless, no matter what the system is.”