Has the Green Button finally given US utility customers an easy way to grasp the benefits of smart grid technology?
It is not every day your mum-in-law becomes a smart grid advocate. But that is what happened to Chris King, chief regulatory officer for the Siemens smart grid subsidiary eMeter, after he tried out a new Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) rate-checker on his mother-in-law.
Writing about the experience in his Smart Grid Watch blog, King says the PG&E application made it easy for him to find out how to cut 7%, or around US$35, a year off her bill. “Mom’s reaction? ‘Of course I want to try it!’” he reported.
Perhaps more than PG&E, King and his mother-in-law had the first Chief Technology Officer of the United States, Aneesh Chopra, to thank.
At the GridWeek show in September last year, Chopra challenged smart grid developers to provide consumer access to energy use information in the same way as the US Department of Veterans Affairs had allowed with its Blue Button healthcare information scheme.
The Blue Button was launched in August 2010 on the Veterans Affairs website, in collaboration with industry and non-profit organisations, and is now available to more than 80 million Americans who can use it to view their personal health records and share them with doctors.
“Why can’t the same common-sense concept be applied to the energy industry with a ‘Green Button’?” Chopra questioned on the Office of Science and Technology blog. “Consumers should have access to their energy usage information.”
The US energy industry has responded to the challenge. Since January 2012, six utilities, serving a combined 17 million households, have publicly committed to implement the Green Button.
And two of California’s largest utilities, PG&E and San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E), have already made the Green Button available to 6 million consumers with a simple click of a button through their utility web portals, as King discovered.
The other four, which are Glendale Power & Light, Oncor, Pepco Holdings and Southern California Edison, have committed to make the feature available later this year.
Cameron Brooks, vice president of policy at the energy platform provider Tendril, says: “We believe more utilities will sign on to the Green Button initiative in the next several weeks. This is much more than a marketing effort.
“This is the first time that consumers are able to download their information in a computer-friendly format. Up until the Green Button, no utility customers have been able to download their information in a way that they can safely and securely share it with other trusted parties.”
Erin Coller, communications manager at SDG&E, adds: “The Green Button tool is an enabler. It provides the standardisation and framework for developers to create innovative energy management applications, which could potentially become a ‘killer app’ someday.”
Furthermore, it is not just consumers who are benefiting from the Green Button. Says Brooks: “Perhaps the largest benefit will be seen within the developer community.
“Now consumers have a simple mechanism to share their information with programs that can help them analyse their energy use, recommend renewable energy upgrades based on real data, monitor the impact of energy upgrades, and many other ways of receiving benefit.”
Coller echoes this. “The possibilities are really only limited by the creativity of the app development community,” she says.
So what can other countries and utilities, struggling with the issue of consumer engagement with smart grid, learn from the Green Button story?
One lesson is clearly that, like text messaging in the mobile phone world, a simple tool can often be of great value in the consumer’s eyes.
“Offerings like the Green Button are helping us translate the principles of choice, convenience and control in a customer-centric way and to provide more access and value for the consumer,” Coller states.
Furthermore, it seems significant that the Green Button concept was driven by a mandate from the top. “From the call to action through implementation process, top-level government sponsorship has been extremely important,” says Coller.
“It helps broaden the effort at a national level, engaging all types of stakeholders, including both utilities and vendors. It has been particularly beneficial from the standards development processes, which is obviously a key component to the Green Button.”
Brooks adds: “The fact that this initiative came out of the White House and is patterned after a the successful Blue Button effort has been instrumental in it gaining traction among both utilities and vendors like Tendril.
“It is also critical for state regulatory bodies to see that there are federal policy objectives addressing data access to which state policies can align.”
Tendril’s platform now provides native support for Green Button data, which means utilities can use it to generate the data easily, securely and in an auditable way for sharing with third parties that are building energy applications. Mothers-in-law and others across the US will be delighted.