Updated 6:45 pm ET Sunday, April 1
NEW YORK — President Obama has repeatedly called for an “all-of-the-above” approach when it comes to securing the nation’s energy supply for the future, most recently in a speech at Ohio State University in Columbus, OH on March 22.
That same day, in a related move, the White House announced it had secured a commitment from nine major utilities companies to give some 15 million consumers online access to an unprecedented, granular look at their household energy consumption through a new, one-click tool called the “Green Button.”
The tool — which will take the form of a literal, green colored button on the participating utilities websites later this year — is designed to allow consumers to see where they are using energy, where they are wasting it and to help improve efficiency.
Besides the utilities, other companies have signed on to help implement the tool, including Efficiency 2.0, a New York City-based software company that develops programs specifically for utilities companies, software designed to track household energy usage and help the utilities meet federal and state energy efficiency mandates.
But in a candid phone conversation with TPM, Andy Frank, Vice President of Business Development at Efficiency 2.0, said that the Green Button still had a lot of work ahead of it before the data would be truly useful to individual consumers.
“The announcements have been really great and exciting,” Frank told TPM. “But the details still have to be worked out.”
Specifically, one major detail Frank said that would stymie further progress was the fact that the utilities had so far only agreed to release the data in a somewhat arcane file format, called CSV, or comma separated values.
Despite the fact that the format is readable by major spreadsheet programs like Microsoft Excel, Frank told TPM that the sheer volume of data imparted by utilities for each household would likely be overwhelming to consumers.
“A single individual probably won’t be able to make heads or tails of the information,” Frank told TPM.
More problematically, the current “Green Button” program doesn’t require — and the utilities haven’t yet volunteered — the ability for third-party apps to automatically harvest a household’s energy data and present it in a more user-friendly format. Currently, consumers have to download the data themselves and re-upload it to any hypothetical third-party apps.
That could complicate the Department of Energy’s overlapping contest for developers to create “Apps for Energy,” using Green Button data.
Also, as Frank pointed out, there have been several failed “apps and websites” that have tried to do much the same thing, namely Google’s PowerMeter energy tracking and savings tool and Microsoft’s similar Hohm service, both of which are due to be shuttered this year due to a lack of uptake.
“Frankly it’s not been something that people were willing to pay or sign-up for,” Frank said, of tools to help reduce household energy consumption and improve efficiency.
Frank was hopeful that this would change thanks to the Green Button in the “coming months and years,” calling the collective efforts a “good first step.”
“The later stages goal should be to make a Mint.com for energy,” he said, referring to the popular website and mobile app that allows users to keep track of their personal finances, gleaning and synthesizing data even from multiple bank accounts.
However, Frank noted that the myriad overlapping federal and state regulations governing utilities made it difficult for them to be able to agree on a common standard for how they track, store and retrieve household energy consumption data on their systems internally. Frank said that further candid discussions between utilities and federal and state regulators would help move the ball forward.
“Look at the history of the American railroad,” Frank said, “You had to agree on the size of the tracks,” (or gauge, as it is known). “When the entire country finally agreed on the same standards, that’s when innovation really flourished. We’re at the ‘railroad track standardization’ moment for utilities.’”