In the Middle of the Debt Ceiling Negotiations: Can Energy Information for Consumers Help our Economy?

As I rode the metro into work the other day, I read a piece by George Packer in the New Yorker describing a family unable to make ends meet because they are underemployed, not qualifying for federal or state assistance yet unable to make a living wage with high skills required. Packer claimed that the 9.2 % unemployment rate is really something like 16.2% if one takes into consideration those who do not appear unemployed on paper but are certainly not making it financially. Washington, D.C., is a bit of a bubble in that regard; we have not seen as dramatically the economic toll that the rest of the country has suffered. As I thought about the millions of parents with college degrees who would go to part-time jobs that do not use their skills and then stay up online all night juggling bills and school supply costs, I stepped into a briefing in the cool, sparkling new Capitol Visitor’s Center.

The event, titled “An App Store for Energy: e-KNOW and Data-Driven Innovation for Smart Buildings”, was co-hosted by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), Information Technology Industry Council (ITI), and Digital Energy Solutions Campaign (DESC). Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA) kicked off the event by plugging a new bill, known as e-KNOW, that he has offered with Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO) to promote consumers’ right to access their utility energy use information. He stressed this would be a baby-step toward an energy policy that first gets at the low-hanging fruit by empowering consumers with information. The bill, he said, is the “perfect opportunity for the President to show leadership” without raising taxes or spending taxpayer dollars.

Several speakers, moderated by ITIF President Rob Atkinson, then talked about consumer engagement in electricity use. Nick Sinai, currently with the Office of Science and Technology Policy at the White House and formerly from the venture space, has long been a missionary for entrepreneurs on the demand side of the grid. He talked about their recently released report on the grid, stressing open standards to unlock innovation. With funds from the Recovery Act spent for the most part, and due to state regulatory jurisdiction over the demand side of the grid, the Administration’s role beyond standards mostly consists of messaging and education for consumers.

Ben Park of Verizon talked about their foray into a dashboard (possibly a tablet) to link phone, Internet, TV, security and energy management of the home. Lorie Wigle of Intel talked about their work to install 85% renewables in their own facilities. Intel has teamed up with Schneider Electric in Paris to change behavior of occupants in commercial buildings (which she called POEMs–personal office energy managers) that control 30% of the energy used in office buildings. Paul Hamilton of Schneider discussed the granularity, volume, and importance of the data collected through digital technologies and how essential it is to combine energy management with lifestyle and convenience.

Finally, Nicole Turner-Lee of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies brought a completely different perspective to the discussion. Her organization focuses on underserved and at-risk communities—minorities, seniors, and those living in poverty (not necessarily mutually exclusive). She stressed the importance of consumer education and mobile devices as a means of providing information and changing behavior.

Which brings me back to my initial thoughts: how can these apps help the millions of Americans who are not living in poverty, who are not elderly, who are not wealthy, but are vastly under-employed? These are often highly educated people who are barely making ends meet, having to choose whether to pay utility bills or the mortgage. It strikes me that the information, tools, and possible federal legislation discussed at this briefing could help those people manage the cost of equipment that cannot simply be turned off–refrigerators, washing machines, air conditioners, water heaters. If utilities could provide every home with a device or other means to allow for consumer control, combined with rates that allow consumers to adjust their highest use to times that cost less, these “energy apps” could help far more people than this group actively addressed.

Now we just need e-KNOW and our state regulators to empower all consumers with information, tools, and rates.

About cleangridview
Smart grid and clean tech policy expert with nearly 30 years of experience with utilities, government, non-profits, and the private sector.

4 Responses to In the Middle of the Debt Ceiling Negotiations: Can Energy Information for Consumers Help our Economy?

  1. DESC says:

    nice posting by Katherine reflecting on our event last Wednesday, at

  2. John Cooper says:

    I think the solution does not lie in the hands of government or utilities – I despair of leadership from government, and utilities have too much on their plate now to be first to market with innovative retail solutions. Rather third-party entrepreneurs will put affordable solutions in the hands of consumers and owners – iPhone or Android apps? – to meet two compelling needs. First, consumers need to become energy aware – they are ignorant and do not understand their energy, where it comes from and how much is wasted. Second, building owners need to stop the wasteful use of energy to heat/cool, light, and energize appliances and digital devices in their buildings.

    Consumers don’t need government or utility initiatives to get smarter, though that might help. More likely, small changes via apps that go viral will whittle away at the edges as consumers seek to lower their costs and save money. And Owners don’t need government or utility initiatives, though that might help as well. More likely, a stagnant real estate market loaded with foreclosed properties for the foreseeable future will entice owners to re-invest in their properties to make them more compelling to buyers and tenants. Improvements to the building envelope and smart appliances will lower the energy TCO of structures, tapping the value in energy efficiency measures and differentiating properties.

    For me, at a time when our institutions appear to be failing us, the bottom line is “forget top down, look to bottom up solutions.”

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