The California Public Utilities Commission May 1 ordered investor-owned utilities to begin making detailed energy usage data available to researchers, state and federal agencies, and local governments upon their request. The decision aims to create “a new era of transparency” in California energy, said commission president Mike Peevey. Commissioner Mike Florio said the action will open “a wealth of information” to researchers while protecting individual privacy. The ruling seeks to advance knowledge about what drives energy use to help fashion policies to control greenhouse gases, increase energy efficiency, and improve utility services. Office of Planning & Research director Ken Alex called the action “a major step forward for energy data transparency while protecting privacy” that will allow “better decisions about things like energy efficiency investment, demand-response, and the most important places for distribution line upgrades.” Alex was instrumental in prodding utilities and the commission to release the data. The commission decision intends to balance data release to advance energy policy with the need to protect the privacy of individual utility customers. Residential energy use data can reveal when ratepayers are home and often what they are doing—be it watching a movie, doing online research or turning on the blender. Hence, there were privacy concerns over releasing the information. The key, according to the decision, is to make sure the terms of access are consistent with state law and commission consumer privacy protections. To that end, the decision declined to allow the data to be released to companies and non-profit organizations potentially driven by commercial purposes. It further specified that only bona fide professors and researchers at accredited non-profit colleges and universities can request energy usage data from utilities. When local government agencies request data, which the decision observed would be helpful in developing local climate action plans, the customer’s identity is to be scrubbed from the records. State and federal agencies can request the information only when it’s deemed necessary to carry out their statutory duties, such as enhancing energy efficiency and performing legislatively mandated studies. To help make sure the process runs smoothly, the commission plans to appoint an Energy Data Access Committee to advise utilities. Its duties are to include how to improve the data release process and to smooth out disputes between researchers and utilities about whether or not data can be released and in what form. Utilities are to track expenses related to complying with the data release decision. Under the decision, utilities also have to publicly post on their websites energy usage by zip code throughout the state. The decision set numerous terms about the form data can be released in to various parties, including time periods, release by census tract, and by customer class.