Clean Tech: Regulators’ ‘Big Data’

By Published On: June 26, 2014

“Command and control” appears to be back at the California Public Utilities Commission, the California Independent System Operator, and the California Energy Commission, according to a June 24 meeting. Instead of educating customers, the ideas put forward were to override customer choice and use “smart” meter information to control residential energy use. It’s the concept of “Big Data.” “Big Data” is what the state agreed to send to public and private utilities through digital meters. It can be used, for instance, to dial down air conditioning without human intervention for demand-response. There is no policy definition for “Big Data.” Regulators appear anxious to “make it easy” for customers to conserve. The meeting was conceptual. There is no specific docket at either regulatory agency. In a manner, the state’s catching up with the $5.5 billion roll out of digital meters in 2006. Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison, and San Diego Gas & Electric executives all reported that their respective utilities are reaping large amounts of usage data. They noted that they’re working on crunching data with outside vendors as well as in-house at the investor-owned utilities. “We have over 400 partners that we share data with,” said Helen Burt, senior vice president, customer services, PG&E. Policy makers seem to be trying to strike a balance between personal liberty and energy consumption. What most of the speakers at the meeting advocated, though, is that energy consumption is trumping consumer choice. Feeding into the mix is the “millennium” generation effect. That is, people who are 20-30 years old are not overly concerned about their privacy. Thus, regulators are considering that meter data can be used to control customer habits when over-consumption is a concern, or when the grid calls for demand-response to balance transmission. Personal liberty is becoming a less important policy concern for energy while reducing greenhouse gases is growing in importance. Mike Peevey, CPUC president, insists that demand-response management technologies be “mass marketed, and in every home.” While Energy Commissioner Andrew McAllister said he doesn’t mind that a utility could know when he’s “blow-drying my hair,” that is not so significant because “I don’t have that much hair” anymore. He added that “I believe in Big Data—but the question is whether customers opt into or a default” on energy overrides. “Smart” meters and the changes they’re bringing—both from the utilities that own them and third parties with gadgets (like Nest) and applications to exploit them—are now a factor of life in California. Whether customers are ready to give up personal control for unthinking convenience, that’s asking for a worse backlash than the anti-“smart” meter will ever wreak on regulators.

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