REFLECTING THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION'S LONGSTANDING commitment to a sustainable energy future, the President recently proclaimed October 2012 as National Energy Action Month. "We will modernize our electric grid, allowing us to better integrate renewable energy, increase efficiency and reliability, and empower families to make informed decisions about their energy consumption," President Obama wrote in his Proclamation. "I call upon the citizens of the United States to recognize this month by working together to achieve greater energy security, a more robust economy, and a healthier environment for our children."
Gratifyingly, the President's call to action to continue "working together" is already being heeded by the electric utility industry. Last fall, the Obama Administration challenged that industry to provide energy customers with their own data in easy-to-understand, standardized formats. Utilities and their technology vendors responded with remarkable speed, agreeing to place "Green Buttons" on their websites that allow consumers to securely download-with the click of a mouse-their personal energy use data.
Over the past year, 35 major utilities and electricity suppliers have signed on to the Green Button Initiative, committing to provide more than 36 million families and businesses the ability to download their own energy data. Already, Green Button Download My Data is a live feature for more than 16 million families and businesses in California, Texas, Massachusetts and the Mid-Atlantic states.
With Green Button data in hand, customers can take advantage of a growing array of online services that can help them manage energy use and save on their bills. Dozens of companies are already developing Web and smartphone applications and services for businesses and homeowners that can use Green Button data to help consumers choose the most economical rate plan for their energy use patterns; deliver customized energy-efficiency tips; provide easy-to-use tools to size and finance rooftop solar panels; and conduct virtual energy audits that can cut costs for building owners and speed the initiation of energy-efficiency retrofits.
Further, to help take advantage of this growing array of tools and services, utilities and software companies in California and the Mid-Atlantic region announced this month the launch of Green Button Connect My Data, which enables energy customers to securely and automatically transfer their energy data to authorized third parties if they choose to do so.
Federal agencies are doing their part as well. The Department of Energy held an "Apps for Energy" contest to spur the invention of tools and
services that will help consumers understand and visualize their energy usage data in meaningful ways and take action to save on their utility bills. And the White House recently hosted an "Energy Datapalooza" event that celebrated new products, services and apps that take advantage of freely available data from the government and other sources to advance a secure, clean-energy future. At that event, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu and U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park honored the developers of such innovative applications as "Leafully," which uses creative comparisons to help consumers understand how their actions impact the world and their wallets; "Melon Power," which helps building owners easily calculate their Energy Star score; and "VELOBill," which makes it easy to visualize energy usage data, compare it to peers, and make a plan to save energy.
The Environmental Protection Agency is also working with entrepreneurs and utilities to take advantage of Green Button data to help commercial building owners benchmark the energy use of their buildings and deliver ENERGY STAR performance scores using the EPA's measurement and tracking tool, ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager. And the Commerce Department's National Institute of Standards and Technology is continuing to work with a public-private partnership, the Smart Grid Interoperability Panel, to accelerate grid standards development, including the Green Button standard.
Notably, rigorously protecting privacy is an important part of the Green Button Initiative. All of the utilities committing to adopt the Green Button standard are doing so with strong privacy protections and are focused on ensuring that customers are in control of their own energy data. As a baseline for protection, the Administration has already released a Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights. And the Department of Energy plans to build on that floor by convening stakeholders to develop best practices specifically for utilities' handling of energy usage data.
So why is Green Button a big deal? Didn't utilities provide this data to customers before?
Yes and no. Many of the more than 3,000 utilities in the United States have, for some time, provided some usage data to at least some of their customers. But that service was often limited to commercial or industrial customers and generally provided information in custom applications or one-off spreadsheets. The beauty of Green Button is that it organizes and displays its information using an industry-agreed-upon consensus standard. Standards-agreed upon parameters such as the size and shape of electrical outlets, the number of threads per inch on machine bolts, or the tolerances allowed for various medical tests-may seem arcane or abstract. But they are critical to American competitiveness, technological innovation, and global trade-in part because they provide a much larger market for third-party innovators who want to develop applications in particular domains.
It is simply not worth it to a developer to create an app if it will only work for customers of one utility. By contrast, a common standard encourages investment and innovation, which in turn supports the economy and job creation. Moreover, Green Button is an "extensible standard"-one that can be modified to embrace even more sweeping goals. Already, some utilities are working on including natural gas and even water consumption data in the Green Button standard.I am excited about the continued growth of Green Button, a simple and innovative way to help Americans track their energy use and save money while helping the nation achieve the important goals of energy independence, sustainability and environmental stewardship.
This article was written by Nick Sinai, senior advisor to the CTO for Innovation and Entrepreneurship in the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy (OSTP). OSTP has a broad mandate to advise the President and others within the Executive Office of the President on the effects of science and technology on domestic and international affairs, and to lead interagency efforts to develop and implement sound science and technology policies and budgets.