Green Button – The Damp Squib of Smart Energy

If Google can’t make it work, call in a US Senator.  That seems to be the approach to consumer energy engagement in the US, where shortly after the demise of Google PowerMeter, US Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra challenged the energy industry to come up with an analogue of the Blue Button, called the Green Button.

The Blue Button is a good idea.  It’s a scheme, pioneered by the VHA, to let patients download their medical records in a standard format, so that they can be shared with doctors, hospitals, emergency responders and other caregivers.  It lets patients add personal and insurance information and supports a host of detailed medical data.  When it was launched it was with the expectation that it would “improve the quality of patient-clinician interactions”.  Over one million members of the VHA now use it, and it’s being adopted by other healthcare organisations in the US because of its success in improving that interaction.

The rather naive hope was that Green Button would do the same for energy, but the analogy quickly breaks down.  Whereas most healthcare workers see helping patients as an integral part of their contract, most utilities don’t.  Trying to claim any analogy between the Blue Button and the Green Button is really just a bit of sly marketing to try and disguise the fact that most utilities only want to work with their customers if it’s for their own benefit.  Utilities don’t sign a Hippocratic oath.  The only oaths they utter are those against regulators, the fuel poor, late payers and air conditioning users who don’t sign up to demand response programs.

The reason that Blue Button worked is that it lets patients and doctors share data for their mutual benefit.  That not only results in making a lot of medical data more understandable to all of those involved in the healthcare process, but it helps break down the barriers between patient and clinician.  And despite the industry obsession with treatment for its own sake (see Shannon Brownlee’s Overtreated for a good description of that), healthcare is increasingly being seen as a two-way process where the patient is no longer just the object of treatment, but an informed consumer.

The same is not true of most utilities.  In many consumer’s minds, Tom Lehrer could have been thinking about them when he penned his Masochism Tango:

Bash in my brain,
And make me scream with pain,
Then kick me once again,
And say we’ll never part.

In survey after survey, consumers rate utilities as the least trusted companies they deal with.  And that lack of trust extends to attempts by those utilities to provide energy saving messages.  A recent report from the Shelton Group described the prevailing consumer attitude as one of “learned helplessness” – every time they try to reduce their usage, the costs still go up.  Hence they disengage.

From a utility viewpoint, the Green Button is a quick and relatively easy way to win favour with regulators and politicians.  It doesn’t require them to do much more than release a minimum amount of smart metering data to a customer via their website.  Which makes it a tick box requirement that they can place on their billing system suppliers.  After that it’s up to the consumer to go out and find a third party service to make some sense of the data.

Here’s where we see the real difference between the Blue and Green Button propositions.  Blue Button users can access information for emergency contacts, health care teams and insurance providers, details about over-the-counter medications, allergies, military health history, medical events and lab tests, all of the daily records in their diet and physical activity (exercise) journals, and a full history of recorded vital signs readings, e.g. blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol, heart rate, body temperature, weight and pain level.  All of which is useful information to help them manage their healthcare program.  In contrast, the level of information that comes out of the Green Button is generally no more than fifteen or thirty minute energy consumption data and its cost.

As Green Button users are finding, that’s of rather limited use.  It’s nowhere near granular enough to let them understand the consumption of individual appliances, where users need real time data every few seconds.  (Which is why the UK is mandating the use of In Home Displays and meters that can provide that level of data.)  It can provide gross consumption information about heavy use appliances, such as pool pumps and air conditioning, which lets utilities demonstrate to users the cost of peak usage.  But that’s turning the model around – it’s now about utilities using Green Button to help reinforce the stick of draconian peak pricing schemes.  Which turns Green Button into a stalking horse, not an advance in consumer-engagement.

It’s all a long way away from the Blue Button vision of “improving the quality of patient-clinician interactions”.  I suspect that if Green Button data were to significantly increase the level of consumer-utility interactions by persuading large numbers of users to phone up their support desks to try and engage in positive conversations about how they could reduce their bills, the utilities would drop Green Button like a hot potato.  It’s only whilst it serves as a low cost piece of consumer-centric PR that it’s of value to them.

That’s not to say it has no future.  Although the granularity of data makes it difficult to derive much value from it as it stands, companies that have a large database of detailed energy use data may be able to infer far more valuable insight – that’s something that companies like Onzo are doing.  And there is no reason why utilities should not be able to provide more granular data, as many smart meters can support that.  But it would mean upgrading their IT infrastructure, which most are loath to do.

Until either of these happen, Green Button will be little more than a PR gesture, allowing utilities and US senators to look smug while the smart grid burns.  There will be a plethora of apps for the touchy-feely phablet community, but not much to help persuade the majority of customers to better manage their energy use.  Although the offering from Forgitit is interesting.  For an annual fee of $30 they track your usage, work out if you could save money by switching energy supplier and if so, switch you to the most cost effective utility.  It’s only going to work in deregulated markets, but it’s the sort of disruptive approach that the market needs.  And one which I suspect none of the Green Button advocates thought about when they jumped on the bandwagon, as it’s a model that lets consumers actively disengage by placing their choices in the hands of a third party with no utility loyalty.  I hope it does well – we need more of that kind of disruptive thinking if we’re ever going to change the way consumers view energy.