[open-sustainability] Open Data Takes On the Climate

Jack Townsend jack at jacktownsend.net
Sat May 31 15:28:47 UTC 2014

Open Data Takes On the Climate

30 May 2014

Earlier this week I attended the White House Energy Datapalooza, which showed how open data of many kinds can be a strong force for energy efficiency. This event, hosted in coordination with the  Department of Energy and the General Services Administration, was one of a series of White House Datapaloozas – “all-out crazy parties of data,” as someone has described them. Other such data bashes have covered safety and education. The biggest of all, the Health Datapalooza, takes place in Washington next week; I’ll be covering that as well.

The Energy Datapalooza followed the format of other similar events: It was opened by U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park, hosted by Deputy CTO Nick Sinai, and offered “lightning presentations” from about a dozen energy companies and demonstrations from about two dozen more. (Several of these companies are in the GovLab’s Open Data 500 study.) But this event had a special sense of urgency. It was held less than a month after the White House released the National Climate Assessment, which painted a grim picture of the future effects of climate change and the need for immediate action.

John Podesta, who now serves as Counselor to the President, summed it up at the beginning of the event: “Climate change is real, it’s driven by human activity, and it’s happening right now.“  Noting that electric power accounts for one-third of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., he said that “Just as climate data will be central to helping communities prepare for climate change, energy data can help us reduce the harmful emissions that are driving climate change.”

Climate data will help prepare for climate change, energy data can help reduce it.

The Obama Administration took a big step in March with the launch of the Climate Data Initiative, which uses open government data to help communities plan for and adapt to climate change. And as Nick Sinai pointed out, Open Data for energy efficiency doesn’t come only from the government. It also inlcludes crowdsourced data and data about individuals’ energy use.

Some of the Datapalooza companies give consumers feedback about their energy consumption and tools to control it. Nest Labs, for example, has reinvented the thermostat to engineer what they call “the conscious home,” combining data from smart thermostats with data from the Internet to reduce home energy use while maintaining comfort. Nest, like many energy-efficiency companies, uses data from Green Button, a government-sponsored program, implemented by utilities, that now gives about 100 million Americans data about their energy consumption.

Opower, a Washington-area energy-efficiency company, not only gives people access to their own energy data, but also helps them compare their energy use to their neighbors’ – a behavioral strategy that encourages energy savings. Alex Kinnier, a senior vice president at Opower, described how a combination of individual energy data and data analytics enabled the company to predict days of peak demand and send consumers email alerts encouraging them to use less energy. When the company tested this approach with Baltimore Gas and Electric last summer, they achieved a 5 percent reduction in energy use during five “peak” events. That may not sound like much, but it’s significantly more than most energy-efficiency efforts achieve.

If individual energy consumption is significant, energy use by buildings can be huge.  A presentation from the Washington, DC Department of the Environment described how DC law – like laws in eight other cities and two states – require large buildings to make their energy use public online. To make the data easily usable, and thus drive market change, the Lawrence Berkeley Labs have now developed the Standard Energy Efficiency Data Platform, funded by the Department of Energy. The DOE Buildings Performance Database now collects this kind of information on 750,000 buildings. As the Secretary of Energy, Dr. Ernest Moniz, pointed out at the event, this is the largest energy use database in the world.

The largest waste today is the simultaneous running of heating and cooling in the building.

Now a company called FirstFuel, based in Boston, is using open data to drive energy efficiency in commercial buildings. Swap Shah, the company’s CEO, described how analyzing energy data plus geospatial, weather, and other open data can give a very accurate view of a building’s energy consumption. To date, they’ve analyzed over a billion square feet of commercial space – a task that would have taken human auditors years to do – and saved enough energy to power more than 200 thousand homes a year. As Shah pointed out, these analytics make it possible to find efficiencies that might not be obvious:  “No two buildings are alike even if they physically seem to look the same.” The company can find savings that go beyond the typical approaches of retrofitting to help adjust building operations. “The largest waste today,” said Shah, “is the simultaneous running of heating and cooling in the building” – analogous to driving a car with your foot on the gas and the brake at the same time.

Most intriguing are the ways that innovative new companies are using open government data on geographic locations, weather, and more to enable highly local applications of renewable energy. The New England Hydropower Company is using 100 years of water studies from the U.S. Geological Survey to identify hundreds of small-scale opportunities for water power, including streams with drops as small as 30 feet.  They’ve now found 500 sites in New England that can power over 40 thousand homes – admittedly less than one percent of home energy usage in that region, but a start.

In an analogous way, a company called Solar Census is using Open Data and algorithms to find exactly where solar power can be produced efficiently. The scientific analysis that used to require an on-site survey over several days can now be done in a second. This kind of efficient solar-power siting can save more than $100 million per year in the U.S. today. It can also make life easier for homeowners: “Buying a solar power system should be as easy as buying a PC,” said Aaron Woro, Solar Census’ CEO.

Buying a solar power system should be as easy as buying a PC.

A paradox here is that the data and analysis that make initiatives like this possible comes with its own energy cost. The “cloud” is a rather ethereal name for something that turns out to have a very real physical presence. The physical infrastructure for cloud computing takes so much energy that, if the cloud were a country, it would be the sixth largest energy-user in the world. We need to find ways to reduce this energy use at the same time that we use data and cloud computing to develop more energy-efficient strategies. We’re a long way from making the changes that are needed to manage, let alone stop, climate change. But it’s encouraging to see Open Data starting to be applied to this massive and urgent threat.

- Joel Gurin, Founder and Editor, OpenDataNow.com
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