Using Data to Drive Energy Affordability for Low- and Moderate-Income Customers

June 26, 2018 | Kelly Crandall, Annie Gilleo

The Institute for Market Transformation (IMT) and the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) for many years have partnered on finding solutions for critical issues facing energy efficiency professionals. Most recently this partnership resulted in an event designed for efficiency stakeholders to look at different dimensions of utility data access with the goal of unlocking major energy savings opportunities for low- and moderate- income (LMI) customers. Representatives from utilities, public utility commissions, consumer advocates, energy service providers, building owners, and nonprofits helped shine a light on how energy data can promote affordability.

LMI is often defined as a level less than 100% of an area median income. However, conversations touched on a variety of income levels, including the working poor more broadly, as well as those lacking direct access to their bills, such as renters and/or owners of multifamily buildings. The event was hosted by Chairman Ted Thomas of the Arkansas Public Service Commission, who emphasized that regulators have an important role to play in ensuring the benefits of technological innovation are accessible to low-income customers. These technological innovations–as well as new data opportunities and ongoing barriers–were discussed in detail with panelists participating in the event.

This blog post recaps the different perspectives shared by panelists and the lessons we took from what they had to say. These perspectives are shaped by everyday work priorities and the regions and customers they serve. We’ve framed this post as a conversation between our organizations: nonprofits dedicated to energy efficiency. Here’s what we took away from the conversation:

Kelly Crandall, IMT: The first significant theme I heard from our speakers is that energy data isn’t just the purview of early adopters with nifty smart home devices–it has real implications for creating equity for LMI customers and providing them with the ability to manage their energy use more effectively and to participate in money-saving programs.

Annie Gilleo, ACEEE: Right. For example, Volunteers of America, an affordable building owner and operator, uses utility data to benchmark their buildings. Utilities and program administrators can combine demographic data with energy data to improve outreach to vulnerable customers, allowing them to better target energy efficiency programs where they are most needed. And there may be new applications where bill data can be used for alternative credit scoring and reduce costs for new service connections or reconnections.

Something that is really interesting to me is that utilities–like Eversource, who participated in the panel–are doing a lot more customer segmentation using demographic information, but they don’t always have a complete picture of income or even risks that disadvantaged communities may be exposed to. This creates an opportunity to partner with organizations that serve those audiences to promote energy efficiency, like nonprofits and local governments. For example, New York City’s Retrofit Accelerator combines information about building performance from its benchmarking, transparency, and audit ordinances with information about demographics and health risks, like areas with high incidences of pollution-linked illnesses, and uses that to prioritize outreach to building owners about city and utility energy efficiency offerings.

 

 There was also a lot of discussion about the importance of the format the data comes in, because it wastes a lot of time to constantly, manually transfer information. There are all these applications being developed by people outside utilities, like BlocPower and OhmConnect, that provide energy savings or energy retrofits to lower-income customers. But it’s difficult to get uptake if they can’t get those customers’ data in usable ways. The format that customers’ data comes in matters. If you’re a small nonprofit, you may not have the resources to examine utility bills for errors and identify where you could save money, especially when you’re getting paper bills. If you own multiple properties served by different utilities, you may have to obtain, interpret, and reconcile bills from across the country. Green Button is the leading standard to create national consistency in how customer billing data is formatted across utilities, but not all utilities have adopted or implemented it.

 

And as we heard, when utilities don’t provide effective access to data it can create new risks. People might actually share their log-in information for their online bill account to a third party who helps them with energy management. This can create risk to the customer if their online account has banking information, and it can add liability to service providers who may only want utility bill information like kWh usage and rates. There’s a definite role to play for utilities and regulators in smoothing this process by allowing the easy transfer of data in a way that’s more secure.

 

This gets at another theme I heard loud and clear, which is that we are still on “step 1” of getting access to data. The majority of utilities don’t provide whole-building data to building owners, nor do they offer utility bills in machine-readable formats. And the fact that we’re still working on these threshold issues keeps us from looking forward to the future.

 

This is a big deal for those who use energy data, including building owners, energy efficiency program administrators, and local governments. There are significant challenges to providing customers with their own data in usable ways, ranging from a lack of awareness of why it’s important to the fact that it might require utility IT upgrades. And the fact that we are still working on getting to that level means that some other important uses for data have not been realized. For example, several of our speakers talked about how energy usage data could lead to public policy benefits. NYSERDA is interested in verifying the energy savings associated with energy efficiency upgrades. Nonprofits and government entities may want to see if building stock in low-income areas is more energy-intensive so they can provide outreach on efficiency services. We may need a very different regulatory approach to energy data access to support those outcomes if we believe they are valuable.

 

It’s worth noting, though, that making data more available can create risks. For example, one speaker raised a concern that LMI customers are beset by a lot of contacts from government and nonprofit agencies. Getting outreach on energy efficiency could be an additional stressor if it’s not done the right way, even if it would save them money.

 

As several of our speakers recommended, having that sort of in-depth conversation requires bringing in the people who would use the data — program administrators, but also statisticians, analysts, data scientists, programmers — to help parse what data can and can’t do. That degree of granularity is difficult to embed in regulatory rules! I think that brings up a third big theme I heard, which is that no one state or set of rules has really gotten this “right.”

 

Absolutely. Although the Open Data Access Framework proposed by Citizens Utility Board (CUB) and the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and adopted by the Illinois Commerce Commission has huge promise. This framework prioritizes customers’ right to access and share their own data. But it also opens up the ability to request anonymized data from ComEd, which is really unique. CUB and EDF have used anonymized energy usage information to look at the effects of time-of-use rates on low-income customers, which provides a public ability to “check” the impacts of rate design changes.

 

That’s absolutely significant and makes Illinois a national leader on the use of data for public policy. But it seems to me that state regulators are missing an opportunity to more thoroughly consider alternative frameworks, like transitioning responsibility for producing useful datasets about energy to a state agency or university. Why don’t we have mini-Energy Information Administrations in every state that can help us understand how energy usage correlates with poor housing infrastructure, what parts of a community have access to efficiency and what parts don’t, and other policy questions?

 

The discussion really hit home that rules are one thing, implementation is another thing, and even where Green Button and other good standards have been required the implementation has not always been effective. And it’s really important to think about the implementation aspect, since customers are shouldering the costs for rolling out the infrastructure needed to collect and deliver the data. They need to be receiving the benefits, too.

 

So what’s next? On IMT’s end, we continue to identify new ways that energy usage data can be used to help cities achieve climate and energy goals. For example, we recently released a toolkit on how cities and utilities can use the data from building performance policies to drive participation in efficiency programs.

 

For ACEEE, we will continue to work with utilities to develop, improve, and expand their energy efficiency offerings that serve low- and moderate-income customers, both renters and owners, as well as affordable multifamily building owners. In doing so, we will continue to highlight the need for improved access to energy data for these customers and those that serve them.

About the Authors

Annie Gilleo is Senior Manager, State Policy, at ACEEE. ACEEE advises policymakers, program managers, utilities, and energy efficiency professionals on tools to advance energy efficiency policies, programs, technologies, investments, and behaviors.

Kelly Crandall is the Manager of State and Local Policy at IMT. IMT is committed to transforming markets to make energy efficiency business-as-usual in the built environment, working with government entities and market actors to build demand and reduce transactional barriers. IMT recently released new resources on how to use benchmarking data to drive energy efficiency as part of Putting Data to Work.

Meet the Authors

Manager, State and Local Policy
Annie Gilleo
Senior Manager, State Policy

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