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Posted on October 6, 2011

California Utilities to Develop ‘Green Button’ By End of 2011

By David Kligman

SAN RAMON—At the urging of White House Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra, California’s three largest utilities have agreed to create a “green button” that would allow customers to go online to access their energy usage with one click.

Aneesh Chopra & Art Anderson

Aneesh Chopra listens as Art Anderson discusses PG&E’s SmartMeter home area network pilot, which would allow the utility to communicate peak pricing and other messages to customers. (Photos by David Kligman.)

Chopra met with executives of PG&E, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric prior to a PG&E-hosted event Tuesday with members of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group. His request to the utilities: Offer customers personal energy information that’s simple to read and can be easily downloaded. Chopra unveiled the idea on his blog last month.

PG&E currently allows customers to download their energy usage. The other utilities said they would offer their customers the same capability by the end of 2011. All three utilities would make their reports standardized so that customers could send the data to third party vendors, which would spur development of energy apps and other innovative uses for customers’ energy information.

“The good news is that the three utilities agreed today to harmonize the format of their information,” Chopra announced to about 50 business leaders. “This is something that gets the ball moving at least across California and then the rest of the U.S. Giving customers access to this information will bring that information to life to power citizens to inspire a whole range of products and services that will bring the value of the smart grid home in a tangible way.”

Collaborating with other utilities a smart idea

PG&E Chief Information Officer Karen Austin said the decision to collaborate is a good one.

“I like the idea for the customer who wants to save money or be more energy efficient,” she said. “Let’s look at ways to partner and collaborate with others and the White House to give customers the tools to be as efficient as possible with their energy.”

Karen Austin, Chris Irwin and Aneesh Chopra

From left, PG&E CIO Karen Austin, Chris Irwin of the Department of Energy and White House CTO Aneesh Chopra tour the PG&E Technology Innovation Center in San Ramon.

Chopra adapted the idea from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ launch of a “blue button” that lets veterans easily download their personal health data and share it with doctors, care givers and others they trust.

Some business leaders cautioned about privacy risks. However, Chopra said if it can work in the health care arena it can work for the energy industry.

“It was a radical idea from a healthcare standpoint,” Chopra said. “But a year ago the service was live and today over 500,000 active duty military, veterans and Medicare beneficiaries have downloaded their information. A whole industry is emerging.”

It’s also a practical idea, said Chopra, who was appointed in 2009 and works to advance President Obama’s technology agenda by fostering new ideas.

“Imagine being able to check your air conditioner from your smartphone or having a clothes dryer that saves money for you automatically during critically hot days or simply getting some helpful customized hints on how best to save energy and money in your house or apartment,” he said in his blog post.

Optimizing programmable thermostats one idea

One idea that the utilities discussed involved customers being able to optimize programmable thermostats. The customer would click a “green button” to release their energy usage to a third party that would then incorporate that data with additional customer input to develop suggestions for efficient energy settings based on the time of day.

Earlier Tuesday, PG&E’s Art Anderson and Zahra Makoui led Chopra on a 45-minute tour of the Technology Innovation Center communication lab where PG&E tests everything from SmartMeters to in-home devices like thermostats and appliances.

Chopra also was shown a PG&E lab pilot with the Electric Power Research Institute to test electric charging stations on the utility network. This type of research is important since an estimated 1 million electric vehicles are expected to be on U.S. roads by 2015.

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