How Big Data Can Help Reduce Energy Consumption

Screen Shot 2014-03-12 at 2.09.20 PMThis week on the PPGR we are talking Big Data in the lead up to this year’s Ford+SPPG Conference, an annual academic policy event between the SPPG and the Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan. Follow us on Twitter @FordSPPG  for the latest updates on the conference and interesting Big Data-related news articles.

Katelyn Margerm

As the hype around big data increases, its possibilities for revolutionizing our homes, businesses, cities, and governments has become more obvious and impressive. Alongside health, education, and policing, energy is a major sector undergoing transformations driven by information and technological developments. An exciting development in the sector is Google’s announcement earlier this year of its $3.2 billion cash purchase of Nest—a home automation company that designs and manufactures sensor-driven, WiFi-enabled, self-learning, and programmable thermostats and smoke detectors.

Google’s acquisition marks a big step forward for the commercialization of smart home technologies, an arena previously dominated by tech enthusiasts and those wealthy enough to dole out large sums for costly home automation systems. Now, for only $250, homeowners can install Nest to monitor their thermostat from anywhere using their phones, tablets, or PCs. Nest can even learn a household’s daily schedules and program itself to moderate temperature, automatically lowering heating and cooling bills by up to 20%.

With this convenience, however, comes an increase in the amount of energy consumption data available. This data can reveal personal details about the lives of consumers, such as their daily schedules, whether their homes are equipped with alarm systems, whether they own expensive power consuming appliances, or if they use certain types of medical equipment.

To protect customer privacy, some advocate for empowering consumers with better tools to engage with service providers by putting the data in their hands. Principles of a movement called Vendor Relationship Management assert that customers must be the key points of integration for their own data, and that they must have control over the data they generate. This means they must be able to assert their own terms of engagement and select what information they share.

The Vender Relationship Management argument is the basic ethos of President Obama’s Green Button program. The program encourages consumers to download their energy usage data in an easy-to-understand format, with the hope that they will use it to change their consumption habits and increase conservation.

However, given the level of engagement and literacy of the average citizen around energy usage, expecting consumers to take the initiative to not only opt-in but to actively seek out and interpret their energy consumption data is a big ask. Still, the automation Nest provides makes efficient home operations much more of a reality for the average person. And if new levels of energy conservation mean the government can divert funds from energy infrastructure and generation to schools and hospitals, maybe the benefit is worth the risk.

Katelyn Margerm is a 2015 Master of Public Policy Candidate at the University of Toronto. She holds a BSc in Civil Engineering and has worked for the last six years in the private and non-profit sectors promoting green building design, conservation, distributed energy generation, and community energy planning and mapping.

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