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Data access critical for lower utility bills, fighting climate change

When I login to my ComEd customer account, I can see how many kilowatt-hours of electricity I used yesterday. I can compare my usage yesterday to the same day last year, and I can see how my energy efficiency efforts stack up against my neighbors.

This energy usage data in the hands of consumers–like you and me–and third-parties–like CUB and innovative clean energy businesses–results in a more reliable grid, a smaller environmental footprint and well-informed consumers who pay less for their energy.

The availability of our energy usage data is thanks to smart meters, also called digital or advanced meters. Analog meters have tiny mechanical dials that someone—you or a utility worker—had to read each month to measure your home’s power usage. Smart meters are digital, and unlike traditional meters, they can send our usage data directly to the utility.

Illinois two biggest electric utilities, Ameren and ComEd, began a major smart meter installation plan after the passage of the Energy Infrastructure and Modernization Act (EIMA) in 2011. The controversial legislation launched more than $3 billion in upgrades to Illinois’ power grid over a decade. While CUB believes the upgrades, if done right, are essential to a more affordable, reliable and cleaner power grid, we opposed the legislation, arguing that it lacked consumer protections against unjust rate hikes to pay for the improvements.

Since the passage of EIMA, the utility watchdog has pressed utilities to ensure consumers are reaping the benefits of the newly-modernized power grid and aren’t just footing the bill. One way is by taking advantage of the energy data collected by smart meters  to save consumers money and shrink our dirty energy dependence. However, the benefits can’t be realized without providing consumers and third parties access to the energy data they need to better control their usage.

To ensure this key step wasn’t overlooked, Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and CUB’s legal and policy teams helped develop the Open Access Data Framework. This set of guidelines dictates what data should be easily available to consumers and third-parties and how to ensure customer privacy is protected. It set a two-year timeline for utilities to make it happen.

As a result of the framework and consumer access to their own smart meter data, electricity customers with smart meters (most Illinois consumers) can more easily tap into money-saving benefits, such as dynamic pricing programs and expanded energy efficiency programs. 

Ameren customers may benefit from these programs:

ComEd customers may benefit from these programs:

These programs encourage consumers to shift their energy usage to off-peak times, when energy demand is lower. By doing so, not only are consumers making financially-responsible decisions about their energy use, but they are also reducing their environmental impact.

Any time a consumer shifts their usage away from peak-demand times, seemingly small actions help reduce society’s reliance on fossil fuels. During peak demand times, “peaker” plants come online to help meet the extra demand, even if it’s only for a few hours a year. These plants are often polluting, dirty energy generators, so reducing peak demand also means reducing pollution and giving the environment a break. 

Access to our own energy data empowers individual consumers to save money and shrink their carbon footprint. And with third parties like CUB, access to energy usage data can do even more.

In February 2017, the ICC approved the release of anonymous, aggregate energy usage data from 4 million individual customers across the state. While protecting the privacy of customers, the data is available by time and location, in half-hour increments, daily, over a series of years and by local zip codes.

These datasets have fueled numerous papers by CUB’s research department, my coworkers Jeff and Ramandeep, including a paper that found in a test year 97 percent of ComEd customers could have saved money on a utility real-time pricing program without changing behavior. Compared to the flat rate that most consumers pay now, the real-time pricing model showed an average annual savings of $86.63 for ComEd customers. 

In recent years, CUB has also shown how electric vehicles could help control power grid costs and raised the concern that low-income households pay more than their fair share for electricity. 

But beyond consumers and researchers, this data has other uses. Grid operators can use it to identify stressors and boost grid reliability, resulting in fewer shutoffs for everyone. And solar businesses can better identify consumers who have the potential to save by going solar. Smart thermostat companies could potentially use the data to provide better, more efficient programming to their users.

Smart meters allowed for the gathering of energy usage data, but granting consumer and third-party access to that data is helping transform our energy landscape.