There is a tsunami of data in smart grid. Information is coming off of smart switches, pouring out of advanced metering infrastructure and being culled from sensors that are being installed in buildings large and small.

The data is enabling insight into utility operations and building management, but maybe not as much insight as many in the industry would hope for. In a Clean Energy Connections panel, “Power in Numbers: Capitalizing on the Data of Cleantech,” the speakers asserted that data by itself can only solve so many problems. The promise of data is great, but there is still a long way to go.

“For the energy efficiency and demand response company, you’re selling a product and competing against the status quo -- doing nothing,” said Michael Harrington, manager of targeted demand side management for Consolidated Edison. “The conversation really varies a lot, but we are all using data to craft the right message for the right customer.”

For vendors that are looking to provide utilities with that data, the picture was a little rosier. Efficiency 2.0, which is sort of an Opower-meets-RecycleBank model for residential energy efficiency programs, uses various angles to reach customers. For some, it’s a message of green, for others it’s money savings. “The most important thing is understanding the people I’m relating to,” said Mark Smith, director of marketing for Efficiency 2.0. “With data, I can know what they’re doing and put a goal in place and breach that chasm.”

Smith said that segmenting the customer base is still a work in progress, and one that some of the more progressive utilities are also just beginning to work on. Segmentation, which leads to tailored options, is pervasive in nearly every other area of our daily lives. But it has just barely made its way into utilities, largely because most are regulated monopolies providing an essential service to everyone.

From a commercial perspective, quality data could open many doors. For example, many customers of building controls giant Johnson Controls have high rates or aging infrastructure or both, according to Domenic Armano, director of Strategy & Innovation for Johnson Controls.

To gain insight into how to better spend energy dollars, or where to make strategic investments in buildings, Johnson Controls and its competitors are offering buildings analytics. But what’s missing is having enough of that data to build creative financing program, said Armano.

That could be changing, however. Data from energy benchmarking rules in many major U.S. cities will provide the baseline to build creative energy financing schemes. Lack of creative financing, whether for renewables or for energy efficiency programs, is a problem.  David Crane, CEO of NRG Energy, recently lamented about this conundrum at the Bloomberg New Energy Finance Summit in New York City.

At that same conference, however, solutions were discussed. Clean Power Finance, which offers a software tool so solar installers can make financing available to system buyers, was named a Clean Tech Pioneer. Analysts at the conference also pointed to new financing platforms like the United Kingdom’s Green Deal and Chicago’s Infrastructure Trust as models that could provide a template for others to copy.

But first you need data to build the models, and it will be a few years before the databases of cities such as San Francisco, Seattle and New York are robust enough to provide insight into how to move the market forward.

Standardization will help. “We spend an awful amount of time getting utility data,” said Armano. Initiatives like the White House’s Green Button, which was recently supported by additional utilities and vendors, could be one solution. “To be able to get a standardized format to pull data, whether it’s a feed or one time dump, is very much needed in this marketplace.”

From a utility perspective, data sharing is a tricky business because of privacy concerns. “We want to honor the commitment to privacy, but we realize we have the obligation and ability to help our customer make better decisions,” said ConEd’s Harrington. “It’s a delicate balancing act.”

One area that needs much further investment, according to Armano, is auditing. He noted that most auditors don’t have the ability to take a mobile device into a building and make instantaneous assessments about what the building needs. “There’s a time compression piece where I see nobody that has really cracked that,” he says.

On the residential side, Recurve Software offered just that, but because of the fragmented and immature residential retrofit market, that company was recently sold to Tendril. For everything from the largest commercial and industrial facilities to the corner store, it is still boots on the ground that drives audits and retrofits.

Instantaneous auditing software is still far from mainstream, but for some of the biggest problems that utilities and vendors have, big data is already providing initial solutions.

Harrington noted that moving a transformer in midtown Manhattan is extremely expensive, and any data that can help with managing and planning infrastructure upgrades, such as data from distribution automation projects, can have a huge impact on bottom lines.

Although Smith is in the residential energy efficiency space, he said the company is helping utilities with that same goal. End-use data also helps optimize the system so that resources can be tailored accordingly.

Managing supply and demand, whether it’s the utility delivering the energy, or companies and homeowners saving on their bottom line, is the key driver for better data analytics across the board. “It’s really about matching your resource needs with what’s available,” said Armano.