So you think you can aggregate data: The reality show of energy usage

Blog Post | July 07, 2014 - 2:00 pm
By Virginia Hewitt , Local Policy Research Assistant

After work, to unwind, I like to turn on the TV. There is just something about watching people escape from zombies or write 1960s advertising slogans that takes my mind off my day’s work. After I’m all caught up on the soapy cable dramas, though, I get myself into trouble. That’s when I inevitably wind up on reality TV. When I watch a sea of fawning bachelors courting a lone bachelorette, or a young heiress making her way in the business world, it bothers me that these shows fail to truly portray reality. And then I start thinking about work again. If I could create a true reality show, I would call it “So You Think You Can Aggregate Data.”

While reality shows attempt to exhibit “real life,” they rarely wind up looking anything like it. Energy usage data, though? Now THAT is reality. The meter on the side of your house is recording how and when your home is drawing energy. The data reported to the utility by the meter are highly accurate, which is a good thing, because it determines your bill. This is called your “account-level data,” but it can be thought of as your energy usage personality. You can use this information to your benefit! Long-term collection of these data, and proper analysis, can show you and your neighbors where everyone can save energy and lower utility bills. Some electric utilities have hired third-party providers such as Opower and SimpleEnergy to send an insert in the bill that anonymously compares your home’s usage to the neighborhood average. The insert can give tools and tips to beat, or at least keep up with, the community average. (In a world concerned with individual privacy, it is important to remember that the customer always owns the data and may opt-out of any program at any time.)

Reality shows may stick seven people in a house, but in the energy efficiency reality, building complexes, city blocks, or entire neighborhoods can be grouped together to determine the average amount of energy usage. This is especially useful for utilities and local governments that wish to target areas for energy-efficiency upgrades. Our new toolkit piece, “Best Practices for Working with Utilities to Improve Access to Energy Usage Data,” dives into how homeowners, building managers, and city planners can use the appropriate data to more effectively improve their energy efficiency.

From our toolkit, a “Real World” example of using account-level and aggregated energy data to improve the delivery of efficiency services is Phoenix, Arizona. The Energize Phoenix program is a partnership among the city, its utility, and the local university. Initially funded by the Better Buildings Neighborhood Program, Energize Phoenix offers incentives for energy-efficiency measures to homes in a 10-mile corridor of Phoenix. First, customers willing to participate signed a data waiver so their information could be blindly collected and analyzed anonymously at both the account level and as city blocks. This data collection established a pre-upgrade baseline. Then, energy-efficiency measures were completed. As time went on and meters continued collecting data, analysis of these data proved the level of energy savings achieved, at both the building and neighborhood levels. The lower monthly bills spoke for themselves. Three years into the program, efficiency retrofits helped 33.3 million square feet of commercial space reduce energy use by 17%, 277 single-family homes reduce energy use by an average of 3,208 kWh, and 1,700 multi-family units reduce energy use by 30%. Now that is some riveting reality!