OhmConnect is consumer-facing software, but the open data access that makes it work can benefit solar contractors too by giving customers more insight into their electricity use. OhmConnect pays electric customers for using less energy or using energy-efficient appliances.
Customers can sign up for free by either downloading an app or signing up online. They provide their phone numbers and email addresses and start receiving notifications about when they can get paid to reduce their energy. The application is still in its early stages, only able to work with three California utilities as well as Texas users part of Smart Meter Texas and Toronto users with Toronto Hydro. The company says it has hundreds of thousands of users, though.
They get paid behaviorally, by unplugging devices and turning off lights, and by connecting automated devices to the platform, like smart thermostats and smart plugs. OhmConnect then accesses customers’ smart meter data with their permission, and uses that data to sell their energy reductions into wholesale electricity markets like the California ISO.
“We take hundreds of thousands of households, each of which is too small by itself to participate in the wholesale market. We add them up into basically a virtual power plant, and we behave in the market just as though we were a physical power plant, but instead of supplying electrical power to the grid, we reduce load, which has the same net impact,” said John Anderson, director of energy markets at OhmConnect.
How OhmConnect works
Three things are required for customers to be able to use OhmConnect.
First, the utility must have smart metering infrastructure in place.
“You need to be able to measure customers’ electricity usage at the interval level, at least on an hourly basis,” Anderson said. Large companies may have the money and resources to install their own smart meters, but residential customers, which are OhmConnect’s specialty, almost certainly do not. And OhmConnect doesn’t either.
“If you would imagine OhmConnect having to go to every single household in California and place a dedicated metering device at that household, that would very quickly become a prohibitive cost,” Anderson said.
The next crucial step necessary for OhmConnect to work in a service territory is a pathway for third parties to be able to access the data.
“In many instances, the smart meters that are out there, the utilities are using them for their own purposes for billing customers, for detecting outages and so forth,” Anderson said. “But there isn’t a nice tidy pathway for a customer to authorize access to their data through a third-party service provider.”
In order for data access to be opened up, typically the public utility commission authorizes the data flow in the first place. Retail electricity is generally under state jurisdiction, so the utilities are usually responsible for managing customers’ meter data. The utilities are subject to privacy and confidentiality regulations made by either the public utilities commissions or state legislatures.
When OhmConnect got started in 2014, customers would download and print a paper form, fill it out with information like account number and address, sign it by hand and send it back to the utility to authorize OhmConnect to access their energy data. The process took time and effort. Anderson said the cumbersome process was largely meant to legally protect the utilities and included many obscure legal terms.
The utility could reject applications if the file size was too big or if a customer only sent in the signature page without the rest of the form.
“This was having a very tangible negative effect on the number of customers that were seeking to participate,” Anderson said.
California is moving toward an all-electronic process that looks similar to what consumers see when they want to provide another app like The New York Times with access to their Facebook data. Anderson expects the transition to be finished in early 2018.
“It protects customer privacy, it follows established best practices from other industries and it provides a good customer experience,” Anderson said.
The third aspect that must be in place to allow third-party services like OhmConnect to function is the ability for third parties to monetize customers in the electric market, independent of an electricity retailer. This step is the lifeblood of OhmConnect and allows them to pay customers for being part of the wholesale market.
Right now, only three California utilities provide all three necessary steps of the data pathway and allows customers to benefit from OhmConnect. The California Public Utilities Commission compels the three investor-owned utilities to make customer data available to third parties with the customer’s consent, so the customer can participate directly in the wholesale market. OhmConnect could expand to other states if they shift toward more open utility data access.
How solar contractors can benefit
Opening a path to consumer and third-party data access wouldn’t just benefit demand response services like OhmConnect. It could also benefit other third-party service providers—including solar contractors.
“They could offer to analyze your data and determine—would you be a good candidate for putting solar on your roof?” Anderson said. The best way to gauge how much solar could help a particular customer is by analyzing the customer’s historical consumption data, then calculating how their consumption and their bills could change with the addition of solar, Anderson said.
“If a customer has an easy way to provide you with access to that data, you can do something of an energy audit or an energy assessment, and perhaps customize a quote or an offer for a customer at relatively low cost,” Anderson said. “So you get access to the data, you run it through your algorithms and you say to the customer, ‘Here’s how much money I think I could save you if you were to get a solar system from my company.’”
In order for solar contractors to get that valuable data now, consumers will typically have to log on to their utility’s website, sign in to their account, then navigate to the place where they can download a file with meter data and send it to the prospective solar contractor.
“That’s asking a lot of many customers. Many people don’t know how to do that, or they can’t be bothered to do that,” Anderson said. “And they’d much prefer to click a few buttons and provide a quick online authorization that would allow the data to be automatically sent directly from the utility to the service provider so that the customer doesn’t have to take that series of actions.”
Though data access clearly benefits this solar-startup, applications across the solar industry can make both solar contractors and solar customers’ lives easier.