Green Button: A great initiative…in danger of being overhyped?

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Just one year ago, Aneesh Chopra, the US Chief Technology Officer who also serves as Associate Director of Technology at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, challenged the utility industry to provide customers with easy access to their electricity use data. The “Green Button” initiative was to be modeled on the “Blue Button” initiative, initially sponsored by the US Department of Veteran Affairs, which allows veterans to easily download their medical history. The system has since been expanded to Medicare recipients and is continuing to be expanded, with thousands of consumers already having downloaded their records.

Green ButtonThe utility industry has clearly responded to the challenge. Six utilities, including 2 of the largest utilities in California and the 2 largest in Texas, have announced implements of Green Button on their websites, allowing customers to download their billing records. More than 15 other utilities have said they will support Green Button, which would then be accessible to over 30 million households.

In addition, more than 15 companies have announced a variety of applications that will allow consumers and businesses to leverage the data, while a similar number of firms have announced plans to offer applications soon.

Currently, consumers get access to a very limited amount of electricity usage information, and get that well after the fact in the form of a paper bill. The idea behind Green Button is to provide consumers with more real time access. Quoting from the Green Button web site:

Armed with this information, consumers can use a growing array of new web and smartphone tools to make more informed energy decisions, optimize the size and cost-effectiveness of solar panels for their home, or verify that energy-efficiency retrofit investments are performing as promised. Consumers can even use fun innovative apps that allow individuals to compete against Facebook friends to save energy and lower their carbon emissions”.

Clearly, this is a major advance in empowering energy consumers to take control of their energy usage. It is “difficult to manage what you don’t measure”, and this a great step towards better measurement.

However, I am concerned that the hype may overstate achievable near term benefits. Consider the following:

  • electrical meterSmart meters have been installed in less than 1/3 of all households, and it will take quite a few more years before smart meters are in place for the vast majority of households and businesses. Without a Smart Meter, the Green Button will offer little information that consumers cannot already get on utility web sites, although access will be a lot more convenient. (Utilities with smart meters do post that information on their websites as well, so gain the advantage is convenience, plus the array of new apps).
  • It may also take years for the utilities that have committed to Green Button to actually implement this capability.
  • For the average consumer, even with smart meter data, finding out more quickly that they use 3,000 watts of power between 7 and 8 am only provides limited value. Is that good or bad? Where are they using the power? What can they do about it? For the most part this data will not be real time (utilities do not really collect and process the data that way), and even if it were, it has been shown that interest in this type of information, which can currently be obtained from energy monitors with in home or web displays, is of limited duration. The term “mean time to kitchen drawer” has been coined to describe this phenomenon. Many of the same limitations apply to businesses, and there are already a host of companies offering systems that leverage interval data for business.
  • With an energy monitor, consumers can at least run around a house to see what is on and how much it is using. Smart meter data is not only real time, it generally available in hourly increments at best for consumers, and perhaps 15 minute intervals for businesses. This may not provide the level of granularity needed for customers to really understand how electricity is being used in the home or facility.

Again, I think Green Button is a great initiative that moves the industry in the right direction. It will make it a lot easier for energy consumers served by utilities that adopt this standard to gain access to their data, and it looks like there will be a host of apps – many of them free – that will help leverage the information. Moreover, even just the existence of the Green Button initiative may help consumers become more aware of their energy use and more willing to do something about it. However, absent the right applications that generate sufficient granularity and go beyond presenting data to delivering actionable intelligence, the Green Button initiative by itself is not likely to deliver the types of benefits that are being touted, at least not at any time in the near future.