Credit: Green Energy Futures / Creative Commons

Data on ratepayers’ real-time energy use and real-time energy prices could, theoretically, drive a highly efficient and responsive energy consumption landscape.

Under those conditions, people would constantly adjust their energy use, cut back when regional demand and prices are high and do energy-intensive tasks when overall demand and prices are low.

But in reality, during their busy lives people are unlikely to constantly check an energy portal website or notifications on their phone and adjust their thermostats or operate appliances in response.

That’s where many see an important role for third-party actors who essentially manage ratepayers’ energy use for them — adjusting their thermostats and other smart appliances in real time and otherwise helping people make changes that will reduce their usage during peak demand times.

But to do this, third-party companies need access to customers’ energy use data in real-time. Only recently have utilities been able to provide customers with detailed data on their own energy use, thanks to smart meters and other smart grid-related technology. But utilities typically do not provide this data to third parties, in part because of privacy and security concerns.

A movement is growing to make this data-sharing possible with the customers’ full consent. In Illinois, the Citizens Utility Board (CUB) and the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) this spring reached an agreement with the utility ComEd regarding such data access. ComEd has instituted a program known as the “Green Button Connect” standard that allows third-party data access with consent.

CUB Executive Director Dave Kolata said the agreement is a major step forward and positions northern Illinois and ComEd as national leaders. Meanwhile, CUB and EDF are seeking a similar agreement and programming with Ameren, the utility that serves downstate Illinois.

No ‘unintended consequences’

Ameren spokesperson Marcelyn Love said that customers are able to access and share their own data — if they wish — with third parties, but the utility does not allow data to be shared automatically with others.

“Today, all Ameren Illinois residential customers have online access to their electric usage data, and if they choose, customers can personally share their own data with a third party of their choice,” Love said.

“We have an obligation to ensure customer privacy and the security of their energy usage data. At this time, there are too many unanswered questions and we will not do anything to jeopardize customer privacy. We will take the necessary time to do our due diligence, work though the issues and make certain there are no unintended consequences.”

In March, Kolata co-wrote a piece with an EDF consultant about the ComEd agreement, stating: “Of course, user privacy is sacrosanct. By designating ComEd customers as the controller of their own data, the proposal scrupulously upholds security. At the same time, it gives them the prerogative to securely share their data if they want to capitalize on savings opportunities.”

CUB and EDF are also hoping the Illinois Commerce Commission approves a proposed policy that would require utilities to make third-party data access possible with the customer’s consent. The commission has been investigating the proposal since early 2015, considering input from the utilities, the state attorney general and the citizens’ groups.

Love said Ameren Illinois is “actively participating” in the commerce commission proceeding.

The proposal, Kolata said, would “codify a right that when consumers consent, data can seamlessly move to third parties.”

“There’s a lot of potential to save consumers money, and they don’t even have to think about it,” Kolata said. “It will happen automatically, though they can over-ride it. Data alone isn’t sufficient [to change energy use], but ultimately data is a key necessary condition for jumpstarting a clean energy economy. It’s important to move to the distributed grid of the future.”

Expanding demand response

In addition to managing devices and appliances, the U.S. Department of Energy says sharing energy-use data with third parties could help with sizing and financing rooftop solar panels and help contractors more easily verify home energy savings.

Third-party data access also facilitates a promising financial model wherein residential consumers can participate in the existing marketplaces for demand response. Under that model, energy users are essentially paid for reducing their energy consumption at peak times, taking stress off power generators and the grid.

Large users can already sell their demand response into energy marketplaces, but residential users would typically be too small to participate. Third parties could aggregate the demand response (strategic energy use reduction) of numerous residents and sell it into the marketplace, then channel the financial benefits — minus their own cut — back to residents.

Kolata noted that even a relatively small number of customers working with third parties to manage their energy use could have significant effects on the entire grid.

“If just 10 to 15 percent of people lower their peak demand, the prices for everyone will go down, and there’s benefit for the environment,” Kolata said.

Kari has written for the Energy News Network since January 2011. She is an author and journalist who worked for the Washington Post's Midwest bureau from 1997 through 2009. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, Chicago News Cooperative, Chicago Reader and other publications. Based in Chicago, Kari covers Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana as well as environmental justice topics.