Green Button: Engaging consumers in national energy goals

60 million homes and businesses, predominantly in US, have access to their electricity usage information online through the Green Button initiative.

Green Button, a national program, was born from a White House call to action to provide utility customers with easy and secure access to their own energy usage information in a consumer- and computer-friendly format.

John Teeter, chief scientist for People Power, former White House Presidential Innovation Fellow and spearhead figure in the development of Green Button, was recently awarded the Silver Medal Award for Exceptional Service from the US Department of Commerce for his work with the National Green Button initiative team. Teeter and David Moss, chief technical officer and co-founder of People Power, spoke with the editors of Metering & Smart Energy International about developing the consumer’s energy consumption habits to create an economy of clean energy consumers.

What is the relationship between Green Button and People Power?

Both David and I started working at People Power, a Californian company delivering open-source service platforms for IoT applications, in 2009. Part of my charter as chief scientist at the time was to ensure that technologies being developed by People Power were aligned with Smart Grid standards, both in the US and internationally.

At the same time, I became involved with work group activities initiated by the Smart Grid Interoperability Panel (SGIP) and contributed across the board to home automation networking standards. I identified key points in the smart grid evolution that I thought warranted further development and clarity. One of those key points was the data interchange between utilities and the consumer. I became active in the definition of data exchange standards working with the UCA International Users Group (UCAlug) OpenADE group, and seeing these through development with support by People Power. The UCAlug group enables utility system integration through the deployment of open standards. We initiated the OpenESPI open source implementation of the data standard called the energy services provider interface (ESPI). The ESPI standard consists of two components: 1) a common XML format for energy usage information and 2) a data exchange protocol which allows for the automatic transfer of data from a utility to a third party based on customer authorisation. This GitHub based effort became the gold standard for the Green Button initiative. It was early support by People Power and industry team members in the future transformation of our energy infrastructure that really led to the Green Button development.

What are the three cornerstones that the initiative is based upon?

Green Button is three things. First, it is an initiative centred around a way of thinking about how information can affect our energy usage by engaging the consumer. Secondly, Green Button uses a data representation standard, ESPI, defined by the North American Energy Standards Board standard (NAESB). NAESB writes the rules used by authorities in North America that guide and enforce policy and operational requirements for the grid. Third, the initiative focuses on encouraging the emergence of an ecosystem of Green Button energy tools through the establishment of the Green Button Association. Numerous third party applications are now providing energy efficiency services to both commercial and residential customers based on Green Button data. People Power cloud-based IoT services are, for example, helping both manufacturers and utilities engage in behavioural demand response activities.

What was the US administration trying to achieve with the launch of Green Button?

The goal was smart grid development of the consumer rather than being solely driven by the utility industry or backend service providers. The federal administration intended to bring citizens into the full loop of participation by simplifying and bringing up to speed the ability of technology to support citizen engagement. While smart grid operational services were still a major element of the modernization effort, it was recognized that without consumer engagement, we would not be able to achieve our national energy goals.

Has there been any progress toward adaption of the standard to the gas and water utility industries?

The engagement in the water market in Los Angeles under the White Button initiative is a good example, where the same protocols and standards that are used in the energy sector are being applied to water infrastructure as well as transportation infrastructure. Anytime you engage the consumer of a resource in activities that can shape how they use the resource, and how they think about using that resource, you’ll find an improvement in the operational efficiencies of the whole infrastructure around that resource. Additional programmes – Blue Button in health information, and the newly announced Orange Button solar initiative – are extending the Green Button philosophy and technologies into more areas of impact.

Can you expand on the evolution Green Button – its development, growth and milestones since inception?

Green Button growth has been influenced by forward thinking utilities and policy makers, primarily those in the Californian and Texan markets. Growth was accelerated by the work of two White House Presidential Innovation Fellows – myself at NIST, and Matt Theall at the US Department of Energy. There are currently 60 million households that have Green Button available to them.

Rollout of Green Button was greatly accelerated by the California Public Utilities Commission requirement that all of their regulated utilities implement Green Button energy management practices, with the result being that 12 million meters in California have full Green Button access. This includes residential and commercial customers.

The initiative has expanded in the Canadian market as well, with most of Ontario now having Green Button and national growth expected over the next 18 months. Hence, the accelerated uptake and adoption of Green Button tools and practices was spurred by policy and active engagement with the regulated utilities. In addition, certification is available through the association, providing the growth framework for Green Button compliant deployments.

What is Green Button’s ‘Connect My Data’?

‘Connect My Data’ is a new capability which allows utility customers to automate the secure transfer of their own energy usage data to authorized third parties, based on affirmative (opt-in) customer consent and control.

Connect My Data allows the consumer to approve this access through internet standard authorization protocols, greatly improving the process of granting access. Before Connect My Data, authorization was a lengthy manual process that inhibited consumer opt-in to energy efficiency programmes.

For example, since 1982, in Chicago every real estate transaction had to have one year’s worth of energy consumption data disclosed to the buyer – it took three weeks to gather this data. Using the Green Button standard, this process now takes about three minutes.

We have totally changed the way processes that rely on data can be achieved, simply by changing the authorisation mechanism.

There are various energy efficiency activities being adopted globally where consumers must gain access to their consumption data for benchmarking purposes. We are working actively with jurisdictions in North America and, hopefully soon, in Europe to ensure that the impediment of that access at the policy level is effectively removed. We are using the same protocols (the OAuth2) that are used when you allow Facebook to access your Google information.

That was one of our goals – we didn’t want to reinvent any wheels – as we wanted to be in the main envelope of expansion of the internet. In this way, we aligned Green Button with the standard way people share their information.

How can one ensure data security and privacy through the initiative?

There are two factors at play here.

Firstly, personally identifiable information (PII) that may be associated with energy consumption data. For example, if I have a data stream of your energy consumption, I have the ability to see patterns in the stream that describe your lifestyle. For example, I can see when you get up and make coffee in the morning. I could tell if you shower at night or in the morning. If that data stream also contains your name, address, or other personally identifiable information (PII), I would know WAY too much about the way you live. The ESPI standard specifies that consumption information contains no PII and adherence to the standard is rigorously enforced through the Green Button Association certification process.

We have separate data stream which handles all account information (the PII), and it’s up to the receiver of the information to make that association, if the consumer agrees. But, dynamically, there is no personal info identified in the Green Button data stream.

Secondly, security levels. Cybersecurity has a variety of important elements that reflect both the security of a computing service as well as the ability to transmit information in a secure manner. Green Button focuses on this latter security in the data transport area where we have been totally reviewed by the NIST cybersecurity team, with an annual review which happens when we update the standard.

The security of the computing service is in play when the data is housed by either a data custodian or third party. That is an active ongoing cybersecurity process that must be maintained by a single enterprise on both sides and is outside the scope of the Green Button standards.

Can you expand on some of the development phases of the tools used in the initiative?

The core tools were built around the energy services provider (ESPI) interface. The whole point of the initiative at the technical level was to put a standard in place so that we can grow an ecosystem of innovations around the opportunity, to engage consumers with new services.

It is a way to stimulate the development of new service delivery based on the availability of data, and benchmarking initiatives are a great example of that.

By 2018, 80% of buildings in North America will be benchmarked in a service called Energy Star Portfolio Manager, which helps building owners understand how their energy management fits into a move toward the more efficient use of energy. This is just one example of how consumer engagement will have a broad effect on how we use our finite energy resources.

This interview appeared in Metering & Smart Energy International Issue 2, 2016.

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