Some of the biggest companies in the world are making a concerted push to get at the data from your meter.
A group of companies and nonprofits led by Google sent a letter to President Obama on Monday asking the White House to open up energy data so that every consumer can take control of their energy use.
The letter was followed up by an event held in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday, hosted by Google and The Climate Group, a corporate and government coalition, to discuss the benefits of arming consumers with energy information and how to best get that data into their hands. (Surely Google and other companies already have a few ideas about the latter.)
Any government mandate to provide energy use information could stand to benefit many of the businesses that signed the letter. Right now, applications such as Microsoft's Hohm provide information on power consumption and electricity rates, but they generally do not provide real-time data. Live data would greatly enhance these services.
Utilities see it a bit differently. Generally, utilities closely guard this sort of data, worrying about what would happen if the data were misused, and as such, they will likely oppose or at least closely scrutinize attempts to force them to disgorge it.
Google is joined on the letter by 46 signatures from environmental nonprofits, technology companies, investors and retailers, including AT&T, Best Buy, Environmental Defense Fund, Dow, General Electric, Hewlett-Packard, Control4, Tendril and the Telecommunications Industry Association.
The letter asks Obama to put the weight of the White House behind a partnership of federal, state and industry stakeholders to set up strategies to gain access to consumers' energy data while protecting privacy.
It also calls for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to “add the availability of timely, useful and actionable energy information to consumers as a criterion for consideration in rulemakings, grants, and other programs related to end use electricity distribution and energy efficiency.”
Even if Obama does not respond to the call, some utilities may already be moving in the direction of offering better access to data. Pacific Gas & Electric is contemplating allowing customers to access data about their daily energy consumption on a day-after basis as part of an overhaul of its web site, said Andy Tang, the senior director of the smart energy web at Pacific Gas & Electric, during a panel at the UC-Berkeley Energy Symposium.
But most utilities won’t be collecting and giving up data just to line someone else’s pocket. The letter notes that if all U.S. households saved 15 percent on energy by 2020, it could save customers $46 billion on their energy bills and represent the equivalent greenhouse gas reduction of taking 35 million cars off the road -- but it does not mention who will pay for the technology to gather and disseminate the data.
Yet the letter’s diverse supporters show that there is more than profit motive at stake. Nonprofits like NRDC and the Environmental Defense Fund are on board for the potential energy savings.
There are also other calls for getting energy information to the people. A bill recently introduced into Congress by Representative Ed Markey also calls for consumer access to power consumption. According to Markey, PG&E may be in the minority, as only 35 percent of utilities have plans to open up real-time data to consumers.
Additionally, last month the U.S. Federal Communications Commission sent the National Broadband Plan to the White House, which calls for a better communications infrastructure, including providing every American with access to real time energy information.
Beyond the debate of who will foot the bill, hopefully any federal legislation will also investigate which data -- and how they are presented -- will actually empower Americans to reduce their energy consumption. Just because you build it (or mandate it), doesn’t mean they will come (or turn the AC down).