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Building a Business Case for Better Utility Data

October 6, 2016

If you're like me, you spend a lot of time reading energy industry trade publications and see a lot of articles about “smart” energy meters.  Smart meters are part of the advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) aka the “smart grid,” which, if you believe its advocates, will revolutionize our energy distribution networks through the power of data. 

It’s unusual to come across an article on smart meters in mainstream publications so a recent article in the Washington Post grabbed my attention: Not a matter of 'money': family sweats out heat wave to protest utility’s $14 fee   

The family at the heart of the story won’t allow a smart meter to be installed in their home.  Their local utility, Pepco, charges a $14 monthly fee to those customers that decline smart meters.  The family refused to pay the fee and the utility, as utilities do when you don’t pay them, turned off their electric service.

There are plenty of objections to smart meters, some with more merit than others.  No doubt they carry with them the shadow of Big Brother; real time access to energy consumption data could reveal consumer info previously unavailable via last generation’s meters.  There lurks the potential for abuse.  Of course, in order to take advantage of all of this information, utilities need to know how to use it.  There doesn’t seem to be much evidence that they do.  Navigant Research recently released a report, Utility Analytics, about how utilities are dealing with all the data the smart grid provides.  Hint: not well.  Another survey, conducted by the Utility Analytics Institute, reported that only 5% to 10% of utilities have “standardized data analytics tools and processes.”  It’s not clear, yet, how providing data services supports a utility’s business model.  How does the utility make money with this data?  I’m not sure.

Why does any of this matter to a humble affordable housing energy manager like myself?  For a couple reasons.  If this data was readily accessible, it would enable us to better manage the utility consumption in our buildings. A growing number of municipalities are instituting mandatory benchmarking ordinances and HUD just proposed a utility benchmarking requirement. They usually want whole building energy and water data and getting that data from utilities, especially if you deal with multiple utilities in many states, can be a real challenge.

The utilities are collecting mountains of data but the mechanisms to access that data are clunky, at best.  So we have a supply problem.  We also have a demand problem: it isn’t yet clear to me why, as a building owner, the collection of whole building utility data (especially if the tenant’s pay the bulk of the utilities) is worth investing in.  The most immediate reason, that I’m now required to report this data to a local municipality or HUD, might spur demand but I fear the data will meet a fate similar to so much smart meter data: unanalyzed on some forgotten server or spreadsheet.  How does looking at this data once a year when required to report it support a housing owner’s business model?  I’m not sure.

I’m (uncharacteristically) hopeful that we’ll get closer to a solution when both utilities and owners recognize the value in the data collected via smart meters.  A considerable amount of the onus, though, does rest with building owners to push utilities to make the data easier to access.  As it gets easier (and cheaper) to get, the data will prove valuable in ways we haven’t begun to contemplate.