An exciting thing happened last week: The three major utilities in California, Pacific Gas and Electric, San Diego Gas & Electric, and Southern California Edison all unveiled “Green Buttons” on their websites. The Green Button was a challenge issued by U.S. chief technology officer Aneesh Chopra in November 2011, calling on the utility industry to give customers access to their energy usage data online, specifically by clicking a Green Button on the utility website and downloading their data. Right now, California customers can go online and download up to 13 months of their energy-usage history.
As an avid efficiency wrangler, I’m thrilled to see the deployment of the Green Button. First, this is a big step toward educating customers about the energy they use each day. It’s also encouraging to see major utilities step up to this challenge so quickly and empower their customers with a new tool. But what excites me most about this development is how the energy-use data could potentially be used to spur customers to modify their behavior and reduce energy consumption.
Companies like Opower and Simple Energy have shown the potential of revealing energy-use data to customers. Both companies use social gaming methods to create competition between customers, crowning those who save the most energy. A great example of this behavior was displayed in the Biggest Energy Saver competitions. These contests, one in Texas and another in San Diego, pitted residents against each other and challenged them to reduce their energy usage. Using smart meters and in-home energy management devices, each participant tracked their energy usage and shared their results daily through an online gaming application. The contest produced huge savings across the board: The top 10 percent of Texas participants averaged almost 33 percent savings, and San Diego participants using the gaming application averaged 20 percent savings. Over the three months that the competition ran, the Texas winners cut their individual energy use by 36 percent, and the San Diego winners cut theirs by 46 percent.
The next step is for these third parties to come up with even more creative ways to use and present data to customers. Opower and Tendril are already working on mobile apps that take energy-usage data and display it in a more user-friendly fashion. The potential here seems limitless. Imagine a plethora of energy-related apps that can do everything from display simple energy usage to social gaming apps that bring multiple users together and create an energy-saving competition between them.
Sound crazy or too pie-in-the-sky? Well, a recent New York Times article stated that Tendril’s chief executive, Adrian Tuck, says they’ve created software development tools that have already attracted 150 app developers and that Tendril plans to create an online marketplace for energy-related applications, similar to Apple’s App Store or Google’s Android Market. Furthermore, Aneesh Chopra tweeted from this past weekend’s Cleanweb Hackathon—a competition to create efficiency- or sustainability-themed apps using utility, transport, and smart grid data sets—that over half of the contest’s submissions were using Green Button data from the utilities mentioned above. This is a staggering number, considering the California Green Buttons were barely 48 hours old when the competition started.
Bottom line: the development of the Green Button is a big step toward educating customers about their energy use and encouraging them to be more efficient. The entrance of app developers and other creative types signal that these data will be put to good use. I, for one, can’t wait to see these energy-related apps and put them to use. I’ll also guiltily admit that I’m already dreaming of beating my non-energy-professional friends mercilessly in any kind of gaming app where energy savings are the goal (a moral victory for all the nerd jokes I endure). But you know the old saying: “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” So, although the Green Button deployment is exciting, a big question remains: Now that California residents have a Green Button, will they use it?