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FeDERalist Paper #2: Energy data has its 1776 moment
The fight over who really rightfully owns consumer energy data
Hi there Task Force! As another follow-up to the DER Task Force Bill of Rights, we are excited to share a discussion piece from Michael Murray, the President of Mission:data Coalition. He looks at the historical challenges of accessing data and explores how the the Right to Data outlined in the DERTF BoR should be applied to today’s grid.
Please also check out Michael’s awesome report on the failure of utilities to enable smart meter capabilities, linked throughout the discussion piece below. If you would like to draft a FeDERalist Paper on one of the rights outlined in the Bill of Rights, send me a note in Slack!
The battle over who controls data at the grid edge is only just beginning. The DERTF Bill of Rights stakes a claim on this topic that is simultaneously obvious and audacious, a bit like the Declaration of Independence.
I’m talking about personal energy data particular to a home or business. Specifically, how much energy you use (electricity and natural gas) and when you use it. The BoR declares that “Customers have a right to their own data in real-time [from utilities]” and “Customers have a right to share their own data through common DER data standards.”
Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But utilities have fought against customer ownership rights in their data for years. According to Mission:data’s recent analysis, a decade after the Recovery Act funded the installation of millions of advanced meters nationwide, only 2.9% of federally-funded smart meters have real-time usage data features enabled. That’s 14 million households that could be using smartphone apps to help them manage energy use in their homes or participating in virtual power plants (VPPs) for compensation – but utilities deactivated these capabilities.
Furthermore, according to Mission:data’s analysis, only 14.3% of utility customers are offered an application programming interface (API) by their electric utility in order to access new energy management tools. While 77 utilities received $3.0 billion in Department of Energy funding for advanced metering, today only two (2) utilities provide APIs to access smart meter data: CenterPoint Energy (via the Smart Meter Texas system) and Fort Collins Utilities in Colorado.
Ouch – federal taxpayers didn’t get much for our money. We wanted smart homes and apps for energy…but all we got was auto bill-pay.
Remember the phrase “Smart Grid”? It sounds cliché now, but ten years ago, it was intoxicatingly optimistic. Think back to the boundless optimism about the power grid of the future. “Prosumers” were destined to conjure an “internet of energy,” bringing forth a zero-carbon utopia that featured altruistic utilities, technological meritocracy, competent regulators and carbon-negative biogas from unicorn farts!
I’m embarrassed to admit it now, but in 2009, I was confident that Smart Grid was going to change the world. I believed.
Ultimately, however, the Kool-Aid sugar high subsided. For me, the come-down began when utilities first told me that they weren’t going to turn on the Zigbee radio that made it possible to access real-time power usage information. At the time, I was running an energy management startup company, and our customers wanted access to their real-time energy data.
At first, I was puzzled. “Don’t you believe in the Smart Grid vision?” I asked the utilities.
Yes, the utilities said. We believe, but we can’t turn that switch on right now. Because….well, because it would cost money, it would endanger cybersecurity, and our regulators need to give us permission first.
With each year that passed, railroad cars of taxpayer cash continued to flow to utilities. Those empty cars returning to the federal treasury were filled with excuses, and my puzzlement became resentment.
“But didn’t you receive tens of millions of dollars in federal subsidies to demonstrate how consumers can use real-time data on their electricity usage?” I asked utilities.
The instant smart meters were installed over a decade ago, the battle lines over customer data had been drawn, whether or not we recognized it at the time. Utilities scored large initial victories, as recently documented in Mission:data’s aforementioned report. In addition to misusing federal funds, there are many other examples of strategic data-hoarding, ranging from utilities deviously crippling real-time data-sharing to giving DERs incorrect data in order to impair wholesale market settlement of demand response resources, thereby artificially raising DERs’ costs.
But the tide is starting to turn. While the DER Task Force’s Bill of Rights is a daring declaration, it is not a pipe dream, either. Recent advocacy efforts have secured consumer rights to control their data held by utilities in six (6) states covering over 37 million meters nationwide. And last month, data portability – cleverly coupled with incentives to consumers and gamification -- saved the California power grid from catastrophic blackouts.
But we still need to grow the movement so that every American – regardless of which electric utility serves them – are put in control over their energy data. Movements need manifestos, and the DERTF BoR is a leading contender, combining moral force with climate urgency. The White Paper might as well begin with: When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the status quo energy system that has caused so much destruction of the human and non-human world, and to assert new principles for the reinvention and decarbonization of energy generation and delivery…
While the manifesto is audacious and compelling, I have one quibble with it. If I could change a single word to make the BoR more sweeping and timeless, it would be to replace “to” with “in”: Customers have rights in their data rather than Customers have rights to their data. The preposition is subtle but important. Customers have inherent rights to control data collected about them because energy data reflects their habits, routines, appliance choices and ways of living. Customers do not need to gain new rights to their data because such rights have always emanated from the data intrinsically. The demand for utilities to make data electronically portable is not merely a demand for utilities to give people their data; it is a demand for recognition of a long-standing principle that energy data were never the utilities’ exclusive property in the first place.
Our nations founders made a similar ontological maneuver. When the Declaration of Independence was signed July 4, 1776, the authors asserted that rulers had no divine right to power; instead, the only legitimate government was one whose “just powers” emanate from “the consent of the governed.” Americans didn’t merely ask King George to relinquish his power; they asked the King to recognize that self-government was the only legitimate form of power in the first place.
Let’s celebrate our 1776 moment and put consumers in charge of their data!
If you’re interested in learning more about the great work Michael and team do, check out Mission:data Coalition’s library of research.
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