Engaging customers in load flexibility has never been more important. The majority of electric utilities have targets to completely or partially decarbonize within the next 30 years and the largest corporations on the planet are making 24/7 clean energy commitments. Luckily, customer-side distributed energy resources (DERs) are also proliferating faster than ever before, and these assets have latent value to the power grid. But converting these DER owners into demand management programs like time-of-use (TOU) rates has become increasingly complicated as more third parties enter the energy ecosystem. In particular, robust access to customer-specific energy data to not only drive personalized insights but also enrollments and ongoing device optimization is both elusive and a bottleneck to scale, making it challenging to orchestrate all of these players for the greater good of the planet.
The Energy Industry is a Unique Breed
Open platforms for energy data are a natural solution to this problem as they are able to fluidly take in myriad types of data from a variety of sources and make them available to other applications. However, the energy industry is different from other industries and any data platform introduced in it must be appreciative of its nuances. First, energy data is naturally concentrated in utilities, which are regulated entities with an obligation to provide affordable, reliable, equitable – and now clean – power. Second, the grid is a physical organism that must be managed and balanced, with real consequences for cost, carbon and keeping the lights on – not the same as, say, adding an incremental financial account to an open platform like Plaid. With these key differences in mind, thin integration layers with basic account data don’t have the same impact as they do in other industries, and can even be counterproductive. Consequently, the startup adage to ‘move fast and break things’ isn’t necessarily the ideal model of change. What’s needed instead is a data platform with deep integrations among a variety of stakeholders that support low-friction enrollment flows and fine-tuned, high-satisfaction device control rather than data or insight presentment alone.
The Consequences Of Open Data Platforms That Exclude Utilities
As an example, let’s consider the case of a customer who buys an electric vehicle (EV) and charger, and is enrolled in an EV-specific rate by a third-party energy data platform provider who promises to pass through payment to the local utility. In this scenario, the thin layer of integration typically offered by the data platform, without a deeper utility connection, opens all parties involved to a variety of potential issues, including:
- The customer never signed utility terms and conditions (T&Cs) for a regulated rate program
- The customer has an issue with the third-party-provided bill and ends up calling the utility instead of the data platform provider. Due to a lack of visibility into the actual bill rollup, the utility can’t provide adequate support, leaving a still frustrated customer
- The EV charger or vehicle manufacturer with which the data platform provider partnered receives a poor review from the frustrated customer
- The customer might not receive power outage notifications or other important messaging related to the grid infrastructure because the customer no longer has direct communication with the utility
- The customer misses out on beneficial, cost-saving programs and services offered by the utility, such as EV managed charging, because the data platform provider can’t surface these offers, share enrollments back with the utility, or control the charger, and
- The utility lacks visibility into the location of the EV or its charging behavior, making the vehicle more of a potential obstacle than an assured asset.
To be clear, these challenges are not created by the presence of third parties, which can offer creative and compelling customer value. Rather, they’re spurred by the lack of deep integrations, data availability, and intelligence layers between these parties and the utility to help manage and optimize for the customer across a wide array of variables. Energy is getting complicated, and it’s up to data platform providers to make it simpler for customers to actively manage their energy products and services without introducing negative externalities to the operation of the grid itself.
All-way Value Streams Are Key
There is a better way to unleash the network effects needed to accelerate demand-side decarbonization, and it includes the utility. Specifically, data platforms that enable all-way value streams between the utility, the customer, and the greater ecosystem are essential to ensure that the utility can continue to provide reliable power while meeting decarbonization objectives. At the very least, a utility value stream would include knowledge of the location of customer-side DERs; even better, the value stream would include the ability to manage those DERs and receive their telemetry data. In the example above, had the utility been included in the mix of data platform users, many if not all of the outlined issues would be eliminated. In particular, the value of the vehicle to the grid could only be fully realized if the data platform enables collaboration and data sharing between the parties who are filling vastly different roles – whether it be providing the products and/or services (EV and charger manufacturers), buying and using the devices (the customer), or utilizing the devices to maintain reliable, low-cost, and low-carbon grid operation (the utility).
Best Practices for Open Data Platforms in Energy
So why not include data platform functionality that supports the utility from day one? Coincidentally, the aspects of a data platform that could benefit the utility also offer a solid foundation for other use cases across the wider energy ecosystem. Presently, utilities struggle to synthesize and utilize the customer energy data they’re amassing from a variety of back-office systems like Meter Data Management, Customer Information, and Customer Relationship Management solutions. Any data platform that will transform the entire energy industry must be able to make sense of these disjointed and siloed utility system data; only then can the data platform have universal benefit, versus the benefit of a few. Some specific characteristics of this type of transformational data platform that serves the utility, the ecosystem, and the customer include:
- Leverages best-in-class security practices like SOC2 compliance, customer authentication, and utility program T&Cs presentment
- Provides vendor-agnostic adapters for the ingest of raw data from back-office systems
- Unifies data from those systems plus those of external partners to a standard that supports typical use cases like customer-facing presentment
- Provides vendor-agnostic integrations to hardware providers across a variety of DER types
- Supports the addition of new data sources as needs change
- Enables use cases that span digital self-serve to device enrollment and management
- Includes explicit customer authorization and consent for opt-in utility programs
- Provides a microservices-based API integration layer to support easy and universal data sharing
- Incorporates feedback loops from data generated through user interactions with the data platform, and
- Keeps pace with regulatory and cybersecurity compliance associated with the utility industry.
Open Data Platforms Will Enable Essential Load Flexibility in a Decarbonized Future
In sum, the time for the energy industry to adopt an innovative data platform approach to enable decarbonization through load flexibility is now, but it needs to be done thoughtfully and in partnership with utilities rather than in isolation. Such an open, agnostic data platform can power more connected customer journeys that reduce friction associated with the adoption of DERs and the use of those DERs as grid assets. As decarbonization efforts push full steam ahead, let’s not lose sight of introducing measured solutions to data challenges that could ultimately affect the resiliency of the power grid that we rely upon for our very livelihoods.