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The Shameful State of America’s Energy Data

A good friend of mine recently mentioned that he finally got solar panels up and running at his home. He was excited to be powering his home with cleaner electricity but was even more excited that he will never have to go through the process of sharing his energy data ever again.

First he had to take photos of his energy bill to send the solar company a snapshot of his monthly electricity usage, so the company could determine how many panels he needed. A little annoying, but so far, so good. He emailed the images, and then left on a weeklong business trip. But while he was gone, the solar company replied to let him know that it couldn’t access any of his past electricity data from his utility provider, and needed him to gather that additional info and send it over himself. 

My friend was ticked, and rightly so. What should have been a simple process turned into a two-week-long ordeal, one he couldn’t resolve quickly while he was away. He just couldn’t believe it was easier to share sensitive financial data like his credit score than tell this solar company how much electricity he used last year. 

Hold your yawns for a second, and then consider the reason why this matters. We know that in order to fight climate change, we need to shift away from dirty energy to clean energy. Much of this battle is going to be won literally on the home front: Home-energy use represents one-fifth of America’s carbon emissions. Installing modern heating and cooling systems and moving toward renewables, like solar energy, are crucial pieces that will reduce or even eliminate those emissions. 

The carbon footprint of household energy use in the United States, Benjamin Goldsteina, Dimitrios Gounaridisa, and Joshua P. Newella
School for Environment and Sustainability, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109 Edited by M. Granger Morgan, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA, and approved June 4, 2020 (received for review December 18, 2019)

 

But to actually scale up those clean-energy solutions, we need to make access to energy usage data much easier for people to share with the businesses leading the green revolution. How else will we know how much dirty energy needs replacing? 

Collecting electricity and gas energy data is often the biggest pain-point for any clean-energy company. It usually falls to customers to provide that information, which means they need to provide utility credentials they either don’t have or know off the top of their head. (Ask yourself: How many people do you know who commit their account information from their electricity bills to memory?) 

All of this might prompt a question: Why couldn’t my buddy’s solar company just get his usage data on its own? The answer: Because companies that save energy and carbon are treated differently than companies that sell you energy. 

The businesses that sell Americans their gas and electricity have an effective monopoly over customer data. In most states, energy retailers have access to electronic energy data portals. Those same portals, however, aren’t available to your local solar or energy efficiency company. Third parties — like any company interested in making your home more energy efficient — can’t get those licenses in most states. Software companies try to fill in the gaps, resorting to web-scraping tools to gather utility data. But those tools break the instant the local gas company decides to change up their website or mobile app. 

Utilities and their regulators often come up with bad reasons to explain why sharing energy data is such a difficult process. They’ll say making a customer’s energy data easily accessible opens up the company to cybersecurity liability. (Never mind that the only thing you can do with someone’s utility information is see how much energy they use — and, maybe, pay their utility bill for them.) They’ll say it’s too difficult and expensive to create the software systems to provide data to third parties. (Except that every other major industry has done this.)

Their rationale, of course, is just a hollow excuse. There’s simply no reason why it should be easier for me to share my credit score than it should be to share my own energy data.

And there is no reason, because potential solutions abound. In many states, there are already energy data portals used by energy suppliers that clean energy companies don’t have access to — those states can just do the obvious and give companies that want to save energy the same tools as companies that want to sell you more energy. (Texas, in fact, is doing this the best through Smart Meter Texas.) We can incentivize utilities by giving them performance bonuses for making it easy for customers to share their data and indemnifying them for any liability once they share energy data with third parties. We could pressure policymakers to pass a Consumer Energy Bill of Rights that guarantees the ability for utility customers to easily share their energy history in a standardized format

We need to do a lot of hard things to meet our clean energy and climate goals, but sharing energy data shouldn’t be one of them. We need to fix our energy data problem, and we need to fix it now. It should be as easy as providing basic information about myself and clicking a button for me to share, for instance, how much electricity I used last year. And it should embarrass everyone in the energy industry that it is easier for me to share my financial history than how much energy I used last month.

Andy Frank is the founder and president of Sealed, an industry leader in modernizing home heating and cooling solutions to make homes healthier, more comfortable and cleaner for the environment. He also serves on the boards of the Alliance for Clean Energy New York as well as the Energy Efficiency Alliance.

 

By Andy Frank; Featured photo by Doris Morgan on Unsplash.

 
 
 
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