Green Button Q&A with Nick Sinai of the White House Office of Science and Technology (OSTP)

It seems like recently there has been a lot of press coverage of the Green Button. Can you tell us exactly what the Green Button is?
Green Button is an industry-led effort to provide electricity customers with the ability to download their own household or building energy usage data in a consumer-friendly and computer-friendly format via a "Green Button" on their electric utility’s website. Inspired by a White House call-to-action, Green Button is the voluntary industry adoption of a consensus industry standard for providing this information to consumers.

How did all of this come about? And how long has the Administration been working on it?
Catalyzing technological innovation in the electric industry is a key element in the Administration’s “all-of-the-above” strategy to reduce energy costs for consumers while protecting health and the environment. Green Button is one way, among many, we are implementing this strategy.  Specifically, Green Button builds upon the Administration’s June 2011 report, A Policy Framework for the 21st Century Grid, which urged the adoption of policies that would help consumers “save energy, ensure privacy, and shrink bills.”

Following the release of the Policy Framework, in September 2011 the Administration challenged the utility industry to give customers the ability to download their energy usage with the click of an online Green Button. The three largest utilities in California then quickly came together and pledged to implement Green Button for their customers within 90 days.

What did they actually do? These three utilities chose to use a common technical standard that has been many years in the making and was created through a consensus industry standards development processes. There was some facilitation and nurturing of the standard through the Smart Grid Interoperability Panel (SGIP), a public-private partnership supported by the Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology, but the standard behind the Green Button (NAESB’s ESPI standard) is fundamentally an industry developed standard. By utilizing this standard, Green Button supports the same XML structure that will be used for other data transfers (for example, from a smart meter into a building). This makes it a really powerful, foundational step for the smart grid.

Some ADS members may be more focused on demand response applications. One of the major successes of SGIP was to work with consensus industry processes and ANSI-certified standard development organizations to make sure the standards for downloading and accessing historical energy information will synch up nicely with real time standards of energy usage information from the meter.

Now with recent commitments to make Green Button more widely available, customers will soon have new choices for how they manage their energy use. They will be able to download their usage, and have it displayed in a variety of ways, provided by their utility but also via a growing set of “apps” and online services that third parties are designing for customers. Examples include Facebook apps that let customers compete against friends to save energy, or using interval data to inform algorithms that drive thermostats and building controls. Interval data from a smart meter, when mashed-up with other publicly available data sets, will enable commercial building owners to do high-quality virtual energy audits. Virtual energy audits are exciting because they can help drive retrofit decisions in commercial buildings faster, leading to new job creation.

Another example of how Green Button could help is in the rooftop solar finance process. By providing your energy data in the Green Button file format to a solar finance company, that company will be able to more quickly help you size and finance rooftop solar panels.

Some Green Button tools will be standalone smartphone or tablet “apps,” while others will be built into browser-based services.

Already we’re starting to see opportunities for customers to use data obtained via the Green Button to compare the different tariffs available to them and see if a better one might save them money or otherwise fit their needs.

There is a lot of attention being paid these days to issues like privacy and security. What can you say about Green Button in that context?
On a policy front Green Button is consistent with the Smart Grid Policy Framework the Administration issued last year as well as NARUC’s vision of allowing consumer access to energy data in a timely and standard way. There is good consistency between federal and state visions for timely access to usage information for energy customers. Green Button is also consistent with all state and federal privacy regimes, since utilities will require the customer to first securely log in and authenticate themselves (as if they are paying their bill online).

On the one hand, the idea of the Green Button seems so simple that one would think it already existed?  Can you comment on that?
A lot of utilities were already doing data export before the Green Button came along. This was essentially utilities exporting data back to the customer, often in a spreadsheet. Some were doing it with just their commercial and industrial customers, while a few were offering it to residential customers. However, Green Button puts this data in a consistent, consumer-friendly, and computer-friendly format. It is a standard format so that someone writing an app or developing a service knows what that format will look like and that it will be the same format for every utility and service provider using Green Button. If instead data is provided in a spreadsheet, different utilities might format the data differently, making it harder for new products and services to emerge. Green Button makes sure that someone developing a building benchmarking or behavioral efficiency or solar app can analyze the data and know how to interpret it each time, whether those data are monthly, interval, or some other time interval. Green Button is really the culmination of years of standards work in the industry around energy information.

Utilities have been analyzing consumer behavior and turning energy data into actual information for a while now. But by having a standard format, consumers can now choose from any online service or app that they want and that they trust. 

What are you hearing from different audiences as to what they think of the Green Button? Utilities? Technology Companies?  “Real live” customers?
PG&E has said that over 200,000 of their customers have already downloaded their energy data via Green Button, and they have only been live for around three months. That is an impressive statistic since they haven’t marketed it much either. It is a feature on a customer portal, but PG&E hasn’t advertised it.

But what are these customers doing with that data? What has been the uptake of 3rd party apps and data? Some customers may not be doing anything with it but just be interested in their own usage for now. But numerous technology application and service companies seem to think that when armed with their data, consumers will choose to act. We had about a dozen companies commit to develop products and services around this industry standard. A number of utilities across the country have said this is the right thing to do and that they will adopt this standard to empower their customers. The Administration agrees. That’s why DOE has launched the “Apps for Energy” contest, with the first one focused on the Green Button standard.

As for utilities, a number of large investor-owned utilities are implementing Green Button and they operate in diverse regulatory climates. Some are not yet deploying smart meters but still think offering monthly data is useful to their customers through Green Button. All told, utilities that collectively serve over 27 million households have committed themselves to Green Button, with implementation already achieved across 6 million households.

What is next for the Green Button?
We expect additional utilities, including munis and rural co-ops, will look to adopt Green Button soon. DOE is looking to help spur the ecosystem with their Apps for Energy contest. The EPA is committed to integrating Green Button into its voluntary software products, including a building benchmarking tool. Third parties will continue to build exciting new products and services on top of this standard.  We’re just in the very early innings with this.

Can you tell us a bit more about where you work, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy? What is the role of OSTP? 

OSTP is the principal science and technology advisory office for the President. We also perform a coordination function around science and technology and R&D across the various parts of the Executive Branch. The role of the President’s Science and Technology Advisor has been around for many years, but this Administration added a new role- a Chief Technology Officer. The CTO is tasked with, among other things, using data and innovation to spur advances in important national priorities like energy, education, and healthcare.

OSTP is a mix of scientists, technology experts, and policy folks. We have experts on a variety of different topics from biology to climate change to space to telecommunications and the Internet.  We even have experts on national security science and technology issues. OSTP is an exciting and rewarding place to work, as I suspect all White House offices are, and it is an incredible honor to serve with such talented and dedicated colleagues.

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