Fight the good (but boring) fight: regulators and #openenergydata

The concept of open data is very powerful in today’s world. We all see the opportunities and progress made by leveraging data sets to make better decisions and improve our lives. 

In the context of clean energy, #openenergydata is becoming increasingly salient. There is now a whole industry called “cleanweb" that leverages data to reduce resource dependencies.

Government has embraced this movement at the federal, state and local level, releasing data sets of government buildings, transportation systems and, increasingly, commercial buildings.  

But despite all of this momentum, the most important residential data remains locked by one of the most powerful (but boring) stakeholders: regulators. 

image

A great example of the power of regulation to inhibit clean technology innovation is the current struggle by Tesla to sell cars directly to consumers. You may think this is a no-brainer, but outdated laws and regulations mandate that car companies sell through authorized car dealerships (as if we needed more of an excuse to hate car dealerships). It would be like if a t-shirt company was not allowed to set up their own store (goodbye Gap!).  

In the clean energy space, the most important regulators are the Public Utility Commissions (PUCs). PUCs were set up at the beginning of the 20th century to manage natural monopolies that required large amounts of capital, particularly the electric power grid. In the last 20-30 years, however, PUCs have also been put in charge of managing "demand-side management” (DSM) programs that reduce the need for more energy supply. Billions of dollars are spent each year to reduce energy, which almost all of that spent by states and utilities, but regulated by PUCs.

Specifically, PUCs sign off on the DSM budgets, the savings claimed and the incentives received by utilities and other parties. The PUCs also control what data gets collected, analyzed and published. Typically, the only information the public gets is high-level evaluation reports that estimate savings from different DSM programs. 

These reports support the PUC’s statutory requirements, but do a disservice to the broader market that wants to leverage data from these programs to improve consumer offerings.

For example, detailed information about actual savings by different population groups helps Sealed determine an appropriate savings guarantee for homeowners. Other companies are using data to better target solar and efficiency offerings to consumers by combining lots of data sources together. 

To build and scale these new approaches to clean energy, however, important pieces of data are needed:

  • Building and demographic data for homes
  • Clean energy program participation
  • Pre and post energy usage 

These data sets generally all exist in separate places and are protected by privacy regulations. It is rare that any single entity gets access to more than one type of data, and then usually only under strict non-disclosure agreements (NDAs). 

To truly scale clean energy adoption through #openenergydata strategies, therefore, state PUCs need to come up with new rules (and funding) to enable utilities to share this data. A recent report by the New York Moreland Commission created in response to Hurricane Sandy reflects this sentiment in the context of creating a new master energy efficiency database:

The Commission is sensitive to the customers’ right to privacy; however, it is incumbent upon the PSC to create an environment that optimizes use of ratepayer funds in the administration of clean energy programs.

Sharing data in a more open way not only provides the opportunities for new cleanweb companies to grow and thrive, but it also ensures accountability for public money spent to incentivize clean energy.

To implement the #openenergydata systems and regulations, however, public pressure must be brought to bear on the PUCs. PUC commissioners are generally not elected, but they do take into account comments, testimony and are not, of course, immune to public opinion.

The clean energy community needs to make creating change through PUCs a priority. To date, most of the clean energy public efforts have been spent with elected officials at the city and legislative levels. While these should be continued, much more energy needs to be geared towards regulatory efforts. 

We should all take inspiration from companies like Tesla that are making a large (public) push to drive these issues of regulation into the mainstream. They are currently collecting hundreds of thousands of online signatures to fight the outdated laws and regulations that prevent them from selling cars. 

Viva la #openenergydata revolution!

Update:

The Advanced Energy Economy Institute (AEEI) recently published a great portal to help find public utility commissioners in all 50 states

http://pucportal.aee.net/