The Green Button Push One Year Later: What’s Been Learned?

national-geographicEditor’s Note: EarthTechling is proud to repost this article courtesy of National Geographic Society. Author credit goes to Christina Nunez.

Chances are, if you’re in one of about 36 million U.S. households with a smart meter installed, you don’t necessarily know what information is being collected or how to use it. In an effort to make home energy usage data more transparent for customers, utilities and other key electric industry players launched the Green Button Initiative one year ago this month. But how many people are actually looking at this newly available data?

Smart meters, which can relay information wirelessly back to a utility about a household’s energy use, are a mystery to many customers in terms of what they are and how they might be beneficial. (See related story: “Who’s Watching? Privacy Concerns Persist as Smart Meters Roll Out.”) The idea behind Green Button is that being able to see and use personal data captured by the smart meters can help customers better understand the technology’s pluses.

image via U.S. General Services Administration

image via U.S. General Services Administration

Via the Green Button, utility customers can get standardized, secure access to their own energy data with the click of an online button displayed on the energy provider’s website. So far, more than 30 utilities and energy providers representing about one quarter of all U.S. electricity customers have implemented, or promised to implement, the standard.

So far, it’s hard to say how many people are taking advantage of this service. No single entity is monitoring Green Button usage, and the button is only a first step toward getting people more involved in monitoring home energy use. The next piece of the initiative, Green Button Connect, allows households to automatically integrate their data with apps that help them analyze it — a more compelling prospect for consumers than a spreadsheet that must be downloaded anew each time a user wants updates.

A recent industry report evaluating the Green Button Initiative’s progress noted that it is “an impressive first step towards standardization of electricity usage data,” but that Green Button Connect and a more developed app marketplace will be crucial to the program’s success. San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E), for example, has had 15,000 downloads of Green Button data since launching the offering in January, a modest number considering its smart meter account base of 1.4 million.

Apps that make energy usage data into a tangible tool also may help spark interest in the Green Button. Last year, the Department of Energy sponsored a challenge that awarded $100,000 in grants to developers of apps that helped consumers save energy and money using green button data. The best overall application winner was Leafully, a Seattle-based app that helps people see their electricity use in trend charts over time and translates it to a “tree footprint,” or the amount of trees needed to offset that use in terms of pollution.

Leafully co-founder Tim Edgar says that the service currently has a few thousand people using the app, and he hopes the number increases as more utilities deploy Green Button and Green Button Connect. “Green Button has been extremely helpful in terms of giving us the tools to really focus on some of those harder consumer engagement problems [about how] we get people to start thinking about their energy  usage and [have it be] more important to their lifestyle.”

Integrating personal data with apps more easily via Green Button Connect has “definitely been an important piece,” Edgar says. “A lot of our users that come around back today are from those sort of features, so they don’t have to do a lot of work.”

It’s possible that in the future, a burgeoning marketplace of apps will attract people who want to use their electricity data to cut power bills, monitor appliances, or evaluate an electric car purchase. But with rollouts of smart meters and the Green Button still in progress, and many consumers still unaware of their options, it’s a quiet frontier so far. Edgar says, “A lot of the word of mouth that we do get stops when people tell their friends and they realize that this is not offered in their region.”

The Great Energy Challenge is an important three-year National Geographic initiative designed to help all of us better understand the breadth and depth of our current energy situation. National Geographic has assembled some of the world’s foremost researchers and scientists to help tackle the challenge. Led by Thomas Lovejoy, a National Geographic conservation fellow and renowned biologist, the team of advisers will work together to identify and provide support for projects focused on innovative energy solutions.

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