Why can’t you get an accurate, fact-based online quote for a rooftop solar system, backup battery or electric vehicle charger as easily as getting a quote on, say, a mortgage refinancing or home insurance policy?
Devin Hampton, CEO of UtilityAPI, wants to make this vision a reality. His company has built a technology platform to manage the open, transparent and secure exchange of energy data, and this week the California-based based startup announced a pilot project with Silicon Valley Clean Energy to test it out.
Over the coming months, SVCE, a community-choice aggregator serving much of Santa Clara County, will be inviting a handful of energy services businesses, ranging from well-known solar and battery vendors to mom-and-pop solar industry providers, to join in.
These businesses will then be able to access UtilityAPI’s software platform, which Hampton calls “a very robust platform for very dirty, unstructured data.”
At its heart are the application programming interfaces to access utility smart meter databases, back-office billing systems and other stores of data valued by solar installers, efficiency vendors and other such businesses.
Utility customers have a right to access this data and share it with whomever they want under state law. And SVCE has full access to it from the Pacific Gas & Electric smart meters that connect its customers to the grid.
In fact, PG&E and California’s other investor-owned utilities deployed their smart meter networks more than a decade ago with promises of making this kind of data more easily available. A majority of U.S. electric customers now have smart meters, which could open data-sharing opportunities across the country.
But much of this data still remains hard to reach for customers, let alone authorized third parties, as we’ve noted in our ongoing coverage of the issue. Just getting historical snapshots of home energy usage can require multiple phone calls, authorization forms and long waiting periods for each customer data request. This often forces businesses to find workarounds like manually inputting utility bill data.
The Obama administration’s Green Button initiative was designed to solve these problems, focusing on developing a common energy data standard for U.S. utilities. But despite this push for standardization, almost every utility has implemented the technology in a slightly different way.
For example, the Green Button Connect data standard, which supports ongoing streaming of customer data to authorized third parties, is implemented differently by California’s three investor-owned utilities, while Con Edison in New York, ComEd in Chicago and the statewide system in Texas all adopted different approaches, Hampton said.
And because utilities aren’t known for being agile software developers, integrating with their unique implementations of Green Button Connect is a long and costly process, he said. Even the most advanced, like PG&E, can take months of effort and tens of thousands of dollars for software developers to pass the connectivity tests that let a company join the utility’s drop-down menu of businesses approved to share customer data.
These barriers have severely limited the use of smart meter data by customers. In states like California and Texas, where millions of customers now have a smart meter, enrollment in online data-sharing remains in the low thousands.
Standardizing DER data-sharing at scale
UtilityAPI has integrated with the back-end systems of about 30 U.S. utilities since its 2014 launch, Hampton said. It also has more than 1,000 business customers, ranging from small-scale residential solar installers to large-scale energy services providers.
In short, the company has the IT infrastructure in place to enable interactions between SVCE's customers and approved businesses that look a lot more like the one-click services we’ve come to expect from online retail and banking.
“It could be something as simple as a kiosk at Home Depot offering solar quotes. I say, ‘Hey, I want to go solar.’ I type my name in here, I get a text message to prove it’s me, and I get a solar quote right there at the kiosk, based on my own energy use.”
Likewise, energy-efficiency providers seeking to comply with California’s performance-based efficiency mandates could, with a single customer acceptance click on their website, “tell you what you’re going to save — and it’s not an estimate, it’s not a range; it’s based on how you use energy in your home or business.”
The ongoing data streams enabled by Green Button Connect open up even more possibilities, he noted. Revenue-grade meter data is of great value to energy services companies, energy-efficiency providers and other parties that need to continuously monitor and maintain investments in building HVAC, lighting and other major electrical loads.
This data could also be invaluable for behind-the-meter batteries, smart thermostats, EV charging systems and other distributed energy resources. In fact, UtilityAPI won an Energy Department SunShot grant in 2017 to enable the sharing of energy data between solar providers and utilities, as part of the program’s goal of reducing costs for solar energy.
SVCE and UtilityAPI plan to start beta-testing the platform next month and launch in January. “This platform is really geared toward streamlining the authorization of access to customer data, which we think will really reduce cost and friction to access this marketplace,” said Aimee Bailey, SVCE’s director of decarbonization and grid innovation.
California’s utilities and community-choice aggregators are under pressure to drastically increase their share of carbon-free energy to meet the state’s aggressive clean-energy and carbon-reduction goals. SVCE hopes the UtilityAPI pilot will level the playing field for small and medium-size businesses in terms of accessing the data that’s critical to success in the DER space.
UtilityAPI is interested in pursuing similar projects with other utilities. At some point, utilities that have persisted in attempting to build and support their own Green Button Connect systems may decide it’s better to turn to a drop-in platform, one that’s already the de facto data standardization for connecting that data, and one with a nationwide list of vendors big and small already up and running, CEO Devin Hampton said.
Whatever solution utilities end up embracing, it will have to be able to scale far beyond today’s DER markets, he said.
“When you move to the world where you have demand-response providers or thermostat companies or large-scale EV deployments, and many local businesses needing to share this data — it’s all about scalability and automation.”