N.Y.’s quest to turn daunting data into an ‘energy internet’

By Saqib Rahim | 10/12/2016 07:35 AM EDT

Data-heavy smart meters have forced utilities to consider ways to better serve customers with such data.

Data-heavy smart meters have forced utilities to consider ways to better serve customers with such data. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Two little boxes vex Andy Frank: "username" and "password."

Frank is the president of Sealed Inc., a New York startup that tries to make home retrofits as cheap and easy as possible. But to sell a customer on the idea, he has to be able to show how much it would save.

Which means he needs to see their utility bills. Which means logging into their online account. Which means they need to know their username and password. Which they often don’t.


"Right now, we spend a lot of time on manual processes and collecting this data," said Frank, who said the hassle keeps him from doing more business. "Anytime you hide any data-access-sharing behind username [and] password, you run into big problems with data access."

This isn’t the futuristic energy market that New York energy officials foresee. Reforming the Energy Vision, the project proposed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), imagines the opposite: a smart grid that lets anyone see their own, comprehensive energy data and share it easily with whomever they choose.

Utilities, environmentalists and the clean-tech industry are closely watching how New York will structure its "energy internet," as some have called it. Similar efforts are underway in California, Illinois and Texas.

But putting the "energy internet" into practice is tricky, mostly because no one’s ever seen one before.

If it works well, it should benefit customers, the grid and startups like Sealed — not to mention that it should cut carbon emissions.

New York regulators are prodding utilities to answer fundamental questions: As the smart grid emerges, how will they store the data? Who should have access to it, and how much should it cost?

Most important, how can all this energy data be turned into something people use, rather than a data dump they ignore?

"You need to think about, ‘Why would a customer want to know more about their energy use?’" said Adam Cooper, director of research and strategic alliances at the Edison Foundation’s Institute for Electric Innovation, an industry think tank. "And utilities are going to work with technology companies to get out there, educate, market new services. The size of the market is unknown in terms of a value. But there’s a lot of excitement around it."

It starts at the meter

Smart meters have forced the issue. Old-fashioned power meters — which made up 99 percent of New York’s meters at the last count, in 2010 — need only to produce one data point a month: total power used. That figure is read by someone with a clipboard and sent to billing.

Smart meters, by comparison, look much more like the digital tools we use today. They can track energy in real time: down to the hour, quarter-hour or five minutes as needed. They can log other factors, like voltage and current. They can transmit everything wirelessly.

Using some rough assumptions, that means today’s smart meters create over 10,000 times more data, said Ed Beroset, a principal technical leader at the Electric Power Research Institute.

Collecting data on every customer in Manhattan for a year, he estimated, would be about as much information as 150 high-definition movies.

The United States currently has 65 million smart meters and counting. As a result, utilities hold a vast new source of intelligence about Americans’ everyday energy use, perhaps akin to Google’s data stores on Americans’ internet use.

Utilities plan to make hay of it. More data on the grid, in real time, can help them predict and prevent outages. Crunching data can make it easier to find transformers that are about to blow, or neighborhoods that suddenly start plugging in electric cars.

"The biggest deal about that is we have more of it than we ever did," Beroset said. "One can determine more things that help the grid continue to run."

Data gold mine

They might also find ways to squeeze cash out of the grid at a time that power demand is flattening. A 2013 study by McKinsey & Co. reckoned that opening up grid data could be worth as much as $340 billion to $580 billion worldwide, per year.

But New York’s top energy official, Richard Kauffman, has made clear that new companies, not just utilities, should be allowed to make a buck from the smart grid. These "third parties," he’s said, can bring much-needed innovation to the century-old power business.

Prodded by regulators, the state’s five regulated utilities are taking steps to make it easier for individual customers to see what their smart meters are seeing.

But when it comes to sharing data with third parties, utilities have resisted, saying they should have first dibs on it and the right to charge for it, if necessary.

Groups like Mission:data, which has SolarCity as a member, have urged regulators to make data as cheap and granular as possible. Clean-tech companies say they need this information to find where their products can sell.

"It really just clips the wings on any kind of innovation if the marketplace can’t take this raw ingredient and start working with it," said Cameron Brooks, an adviser to Mission:data. "If somehow we can figure out how to do this with credit cards and banking information and mortgage information, then surely we can figure it out for energy information."

New York regulators are pushing to get that figured out sooner rather than later.

Next month, utilities are supposed to present a mammoth document in which they say more about how they’ll share data, keep it secure and help the market make a business out of it.

The state’s largest utility, Consolidated Edison Inc., took a small step last month.

The city of New York and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority were among those who had pressed ConEd to provide them data for free. In a tentative deal, ConEd agreed, saying it would eliminate fees for any building manager who wants to get data on his or her building.

But in the future, it said, it should have the right to ask regulators for compensation if it comes up with ways to make money from such data. The deal is still pending before regulators.

"We expect to make more proposals for data fees," Allan Drury, a ConEd spokesman, said by email. "We do not plan on charging customers for data related to their accounts. But we may charge third parties for customer data. That data will be shared only with customer approval."

What price will be paid?

ConEd, like other utilities, is also trying to figure out what people are willing to pay.

In Westchester County, for instance, a band of local governments has asked for info on its residents’ power and gas use. The group, Sustainable Westchester, wants to open their area grid to companies with ideas for energy efficiency and renewables.

ConEd said it can provide the data, but at the cost of $3 per power account and $3 per gas account.

But some groups bristle at the idea that ConEd, or any utility, should get to charge for data on top of people’s regular power bills.

And while electrons are expensive to make and move, bytes aren’t.

"I would argue that the customer is already paying for their data," said Danny Waggoner, a manager at Advanced Energy Economy. "They’re paying for their smart meters, they’re paying for the back office servers and telecommunications that’s required to get the meters to the back office equipment. So there’s not an incremental cost of providing that data to the customer."

A key question will be this: On the energy internet, what’s "basic" and what’s "premium"?

New York regulators have already said the utilities must provide basic energy information for free: That is, the information necessary for someone to understand what went into his or her power bill.

Beyond basic data, utilities can assess charges, the state Public Service Commissio said in May.

But as more smart meters are rolled out, the PSC said, "the basic level of customer data should evolve to include near real-time data measured by those advanced meters."

Regulators have also pushed utilities to make it as easy as possible for customers to find and share their information. Most of the New York utilities have adopted Green Button, a standard developed by industry and the federal government over the last decade.

The goal of Green Button is simple: It should let a power customer find and share his or her data in as few clicks as possible.

But as with all things power, it’s more complicated in practice. In New York, utilities have set up Green Button in different ways, and the data sets don’t match up perfectly.

In California, regulators have set up an entire "click-through" working group to make it easier for people to get to the right place on the website, according to Mission:data. As the thinking goes, every extra click means fewer people willing to participate.

Frank, when asked about Green Button, just groaned.

Why? To get in, someone needs to know their username and password.