I have a dream. It’s about data.
Almost a decade ago – in 2010 – the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE) concluded that consumers could save as much as 12 percent a year on their electric bills if only our utilities would let us take certain steps. They are steps we mostly are still not allowed to take in New Hampshire. They involve getting, sharing and acting on usage data.
Our electric utilities have all replaced old-fashioned analog meters with advanced digital metering technology. These meters gather, or have the capacity to gather, granular information about our electricity usage – how much we use and, critically, when we use it.
What would happen if the utilities shared this data with us in a consistent and usable format – and we, in turn, were allowed to authorize the data to be shared with third parties to which we give specific permission?
“Lack of access prevents third parties and technologies, such as smart thermostats, from digesting and synthesizing data into actionable steps that increase efficiency and lower pollution,” according to the Environmental Defense Fund. “The smart connected grid of the future is within reach – but entrepreneurs and consumers must first have easy, secure access to data.”
We have taken this insight to heart at the Office of the Consumer Advocate.
Two years ago, we entered into a settlement agreement, approved by the Public Utilities Commission (PUC), in an electric rate case filed by Unitil. We agreed to a reasonable rate increase and also persuaded the utility to work with us to develop a data sharing plan. These efforts are ongoing.
Meanwhile, we recently persuaded Senator Martha Fuller Clark (D-Portsmouth), chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, to introduce a bill on our behalf. Senate Bill 284 would require the establishment of a statewide “multi-use energy data platform” to which every utility customer in the state would have access.
I wish I could claim this is a cutting-edge proposal. In reality, the idea of an easy-to-use platform for data access has been around for many years. The Lone Star State has Smart Meter Texas, on the web at smartmetertexas.com. The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) initially developed its Utility Energy Registry as a pilot project in 2012.
The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has since 2011 been sponsoring its “Green Button” initiative. The purpose of Green Button, according to the DOE, is to create “a means of providing detailed customer energy-usage information available for download in a simple, common format.” Eversource – the state’s biggest electric utility – and the New Hampshire Electric Cooperative – the state’s only customer owned utility – are participants in Green Button.
It is not enough.
These New Hampshire utilities are part of Green Button’s “download my data” program. What’s needed is the next step – the Green Button “connect my data” standard, which facilities third party access to the information. Third parties in this instance are non-utility service providers that can help customers manage their energy usage and, unlike the utilities, do not make more money by getting you to use more electricity.
Which brings us around to the elephant in the living room: privacy.
In the digital age, each of us must be a zealous guardian of the personal information that the gadgets and systems around us are constantly gathering. Information at 15-minute intervals about your householder electricity usage is probably not as sensitive as your medical records are.
But it is sensitive enough. Your electric meter knows when you are sleeping. It knows when you’re awake. It knows if you’ve been bad or good (e.g., whether you’ve been using a big light array to grow marijuana in the basement).
So be good for goodness sake. But, also be thankful that four years ago my distinguished predecessor as consumer advocate, Susan Chamberlin, teamed up with the recently retired Rep. Neal Kurk (R-Weare), long the General Court’s most outspoken proponent of personal privacy, to persuade the Legislature to adopt RSA 363:38.
Thanks to RSA 363:38, your utility must obtain your permission before sharing your usage data with anyone else.
There are exceptions. Utilities can share individual customer data with service providers that do billing, help operate the grid, or implement demand response, customer assistance, energy management, or energy efficiency programs. But these service providers must likewise treat your data as confidential unless you say otherwise and may only use the data for its intended purposes.
If enacted, our data platform bill would maintain and bolster these privacy protections. But the measure would lower the barriers to making effective use of customer data, thereby adding justification for the millions and millions of dollars that utilities are already recovering from customers on their digital metering investments.
The statewide utility customer data platform envisioned by SB 284 has an additional and enormous benefit: widely available data in aggregated format. This involves combining individual usage data for entire neighborhoods, municipalities or regions. Among the chief beneficiaries of such aggregated data would be certain forward-thinking municipalities.
In Massachusetts, so-called municipal aggregation – entire towns taking advantage of the right to choose a non-utility supplier of electricity – has been key in securing to customers the benefits of electric industry restructuring. Left to their individual devices (literally), customers have not fared well under retail electric choice, according to studies conducted for my counterparts in both Massachusetts and Connecticut. In contrast, participants in municipal aggregation programs have saved money, thus securing to residents of those towns the benefits of industry restructuring for which all customers have paid dearly via stranded cost charges.
What has held municipal aggregation back in New Hampshire is our requirement that such programs be “opt-in” rather than “opt-out” for eligible customers. That may soon change under a separate bill being championed by (among others) former Senator, former PUC Commissioner, and current City Councilor Clifton Below of Lebanon – a city deeply committed to consumer-friendly energy transformation.
Data access and data sharing are key components of that transformation. We expect the naysayers to offer bloated estimates of the likely cost. These estimates assume we will repeat, rather than learn from, the trial-and-error experiences of previously built data access platforms.
“The proliferation of electricity usage information has opened new options for energy efficiency and demand response programs and enabled residential customer services that were available only to large commercial or industrial customers previously,” concluded a report from the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners four years ago. “Access to data allows customers to evaluate available options and make informed decisions, which in turn empowers them to embrace a new role as active and engaged market participants.”
We should not wait any longer to make those opportunities a reality in New Hampshire.
Power to the People is a column by D. Maurice Kreis, New Hampshire’s Consumer Advocate. Kreis and his staff of four represent the interests of residential utility customers before the NH Public Utilities Commission and elsewhere. It is co-published by Manchester Ink Link and InDepthNH.org.