As my iPhone ran out of battery life this week in an auditorium in Washington, D.C., I was reminded yet again of how central energy has become to many aspects of modern life. A powerless phone was somewhat ironic, given that I was attending the 2014 Energy Datapalooza focused on energy efficiency and resilience innovation. I managed to capture a few pictures before it went dark and was well-equipped to chronicle what I learned with an outlet, Wi-Fi, and a laptop.
— Alex Howard (@digiphile) May 28, 2014
The Energy Datapalooza is one of several annual conferences that the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy convenes to highlight new initiatives in releasing government data and the innovations of the organizations and people who put it to use. The datapaloozas are one of the public forums of the Obama administration's push to open up government data to the public, making health information as useful as weather data. Since the first health datapalooza in 2010, U.S. chief technology officer Todd Park has been working to scale the successful model of the Health Datapalooza, now a major annual industry event, to other sectors, including safety and education.
Park kicked off this year's Energy Datapalooza with a reminder of President Obama's executive order on open data one year ago, which, along with an accompanying policy, established a default setting for new data to be machine-readable. "Data is a valuable national asset that should be available to the public," he said. "Taxpayers paid for these troves." Park went on to cite the 2013 McKinsey study that valued the economic potential of open government data at $3 trillion, including more than $500 billion in the energy sector alone, and NYU's Open Data 500, which provided more evidence that open data fuels economic activity.
In aggregate, Park said, these data releases are helping to build a "clean energy economy" and save Americans money, a point that White House senior advisor John Podesta made as well. Podesta hailed new tools that make buildings more efficient, make electric grids smarter, and encourage adoption of renewable energy. He put its importance to the president and country in the context of climate change, which he emphasized is "real, driven by human activity, and happening now," citing the third national climate assessment and the release of climate data.
Just as climate data will be central to how communities prepare for and predict shifts in the environment, he said, energy data can help us reduce the harmful gases that contribute to climate change, which he called the "essential economic and security challenge of our time."
Podesta went on to list administration commitments to distribute more solar power and improve energy efficiency, and he referenced a government task force that will make recommendations for building resilience into local communities. Internationally, he said that the US is working to end public financing for conventional coal, except in the poorest countries. Domestically, he referred to new fuel economy standards that are expected to save consumers money at the gas pump and reduce carbon emissions. Podesta also said that the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will propose rules for the first time to limit carbon emissions from power plants, a politically controversial move that could reduce emissions from the single largest source of carbon dioxide in the country.
After Podesta and Park's kickoff, the datapalooza heard from a succession of speakers from the industry, from small scrappy startups to established utilities.
Ben Bixby shared how Nest took an unloved category, the thermostat, and reinvented it, from hardware to software. He described how their programmable thermostat can optimize heating and cooling air in the home.
Privacy concerns about open energy data
As is the case nearly everywhere these days, however, such data-driven innovation is an uncomfortable partner with the surveillance state. That's one reason "smart meters" have seen some resistance, despite their promise for managing energy supply and demand: customers are concerned about losing control of their heating and cooling systems. I didn't hear a lot about privacy concerns from the entrepreneurs on stage, but the government officials and Cheri Warren, vice president of asset management and innovation officer at National Grid, all referenced it.
While a right to privacy isn't explicitly defined in the U.S. Constitution, said Catherine Sandoval, commissioner of the California Public Utilities Commission, it's in the first article of California's Constitution, which reads:
"All people are by nature free and independent and have inalienable rights. Among these are enjoying and defending life and liberty, acquiring, possessing, and protecting property, and pursuing and obtaining safety, happiness, and privacy."
Due to these concerns, California has adopted the Federal Information Processing Standards (FIPS) to protect the sensitive data of its citizens. Other states may be well-advised to do so as well: just as concerns about data collection may lead to dumbing down smart cities, lack of public consultation and disclosure could pose the same risks that exist for smart meters and the smart grid.
Given the significant incentives for consumers, businesses, governments, and homeowners to adopt these devices and apply analytics, from the allure of increased security to cost savings, regulators will need to go beyond the "notice and consent" approach to ensure citizens know what they're signing up for and how their data will be used.
Energy data initiatives, standards, and tech
Beyond the talks on stage or demonstrations in the showcase, the Obama administration introduced several initiatives around energy data, associated standards, and technologies at the event.
AVERT and SEED
For instance, the EPA released AVoided Emissions and geneRation Tool (AVERT) to enable local governments to evaluate power plant emissions. Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and San Francisco will use an open source Standard Energy Efficiency Data (SEED) platform from the Energy Department to publish open data on the energy efficiency of buildings.
The National Geothermal Data System
The biggest data release announced by Secretary of Energy Ernie Muniz at the Datapalooza was the National Geothermal Data System, powered by the U.S. Geoscience Information Network (USGIN). The database is the result of a four-year process of digitizing information that was filed away, said Kim Patten, associate director of planning and development at the Arizona Geological Survey, in an interview. At launch, there are over 5 million data points in more than 30 categories from 50 states.
"We tried to make it interoperable," said Patten. "This data already existed in paper form in cabinets. People were spending 80% of their time searching, copying, extracting, and structuring data, with 20% of the time spent on research. We're trying to reduce 80% of the time." Patten told me that people are already using the data to choose sites for new wells in Hawai'i, which has significant needs for on-island sources.
As I walked the "innovation showcase," I found many more stories and interesting use cases for energy data.
- WattB, the winner of two stages of the Apps for Energy Challenge, is also looking for a path to sustainability. Their WattZ app helps homeowners estimate the electrical usage of almost any house in the US and compares it to similar buildings using specifications sourced from open government data and Zillow open data. Their WattBuddy app enables people to measure their daily electricity consumption. WattB also demonstrated a simple $35 electronic device that can be added to a house's electrical line, providing a way for people without a smart meter to get smart meter-like functionality.
- A national coalition called Mission:data explained to attendees how they were pushing for state and local policies that will empower consumers with access to their own energy data. Essentially, they're promoting the adoption of open standards for energy data around the US, and encouraging utilities to turn on data export functions in smart meters.
- Earth Networks is an environmental sensor networking company that provides a scorecard for energy efficiency to homeowners, combining government weather data, sensor network data, and data from connected thermostats to power its analytics. Utilities spend $5 billion annually on encouraging their customers to optimize their energy use, said Amena Ali, chief marketing officer for Earth Networks. The company helps utilities to segment their customers to better target the consumers who would benefit from audits and assistance with efficiency.
- EnerKnol is a New York City-based startup that extracts and organizes data relevant to energy policy from more than 2,000 regulators. They sell subscription-based access to clients (four, to date) who want real-time access to policy filings, direct access to structured energy policy data, and dashboards of sectors or portfolios.
"There's more data, it's faster and more available, but it's not translatable," said Janet Lin, head of product for EnerKnol, in an interview. "The value is providing actionable insights."
- Build Smart DC is aggregating data from utilities and hosting it, supporting efforts by the government of the District of Columbia to be a more efficient user of energy.
The Green Button standard
The most important evidence of progress I learned about at Energy Datapalooza was an announcement that seven more utilities have adopted the Green Button standard for disclosing energy data to consumers in a machine-readable XML format and Green Button Connect as a means to allow automatic exchange of the data with third-party applications after customer authorizations. The utilities are Seattle City Light, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, Green Mountain Power, Wake Electric, Hawaiian Electric Company, Maui Electric Company, Hawai'i Electric Light Company, and Hawai'i Energy. More adoption may be on the way: the Obama administration announced that Pivotal Labs collaborated with the National Institute of Standards and Technology and EnergyOS to create OpenESPI, an open source implementation of the Green Button.
Just over two years after its introduction, the Green Button is well on its way to being how consumers can download their data from utilities and use it to gain insight into their energy use.
"The Green Button Initiative is a great example of voluntary industry collaboration to empower electric utility customers to make it easier for them to understand and manage their energy usage," said deputy United States chief technology officer Nick Sinai, in an interview. "Starting with a handful of utilities in early 2012, the Green Button Initiative has grown to 55 utilities and energy suppliers. Currently 43 million homes and businesses have access to their own Green Button energy usage data (representing well over 100 million Americans), and this will grow to over 61 million homes and business based on utility commitments."
In my walk around the showcase, I met the winners of an app contest in Toronto who had traveled to DC to show their app, Wattsly, highlighting the spread of the Green Button standard over national borders. The developers recounted a familiar tale from civic hackathons and app contests, however: a tenuous link between winning and subsequently selling or sustaining the application. After the contest ended, the city of Toronto plans to issue a Request for Proposals that would require the Wattsly founders to spend money and meet requirements for government work that might potentially exclude the startup.
The Green Button standard also holds significant promise for use within industry, in business-to-business applications.
"When the Energy Department picked up the standard from Lawrence Livermore Labs, they enabled a canonical data model," said veteran entrepreneur Tom Siebel, the CEO of C3 Systems, in an interview. "None of this energy data comes comes from private enterprise and utilities. Now, we can go into any utility that has incompatible systems and access data in an open format."
Siebel says that the Green Button is on its way to being adopted in the European market by utilities, which would bring the standard to some 91 million customers.
"The creation of this standard made it possible for us to aggregate data into a unified cloud," said Siebel. "It enabled us to go into BGE and integrate data in 6 months, versus 6 years."
As I've said before, data standards are the railway gauges of the 21st century. Such "smart disclosures," or targeted transparency measures where consumers gain access to their data or data about them or the services they consume, have gained traction in recent years, from healthcare to energy to education.
Correction: An earlier version of this column stated that Duke Energy, BGE, ComEd, PECO, SDG&E, Southern California Edison, and National Grid had adopted the Green Button. While these seven utilities have all agreed to use another voluntary open data standard for publishing power outage and restoration information, not all of them have adopted the Green Button or committed to doing so, yet. We regret the error.
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Alex Howard writes about how shifts in technology are changing government and society. A former fellow at Harvard and Columbia, he is the founder of "E Pluribus Unum," a blog focused on open government and technology.