I attended an 'Improving Third Party Access to Customers’ Smart Meter Texas Data’ held by ERCOT at the beginning of the summer. It was my first of such having just moved to Texas from Illinois with a desire to continue to contribute to moving the utility sector into the future. Unfortunately I left with more questions than answers about how to get customers in Texas to a point where they get the user experience that considers their context/lives as we consume energy daily. It was a very diverse group of stakeholders all interested in seeing things improve but the sense I got from the 2 days of conversation was
- the Texas utility believes that all third party service providers are out to ‘get’ the consumer
- there is a realization by the utility (but little incentive) of the need to change how it currently operates as it relates to providing data access to service providers. And (the most critical point)
- very little 'Voice of the Customer’ considerations is present in these conversations we continue to have about said customer. We have the utilities on one side and the vendors on the other.
The utility takes a stance that the customer should be protected to an extent that is, if not totally unnecessary, is excessive. The utility’s view is that 3rd party entities who want access to consumer data are out to invade the consumers privacy, act as a middleman between said consumer and the utility and desire to commit some fraudulent act with the consumers data. There is some overkill here; for someone who is intent on committing a crime, 15 minute interval energy usage data is a lot less valuable than intercepting the security camera video stream from the consumer's home.
On the other side are the 3rd party service/product providers who are interested in using tools and techniques (behavioral psychology, gamification, user experience design etc) to help consumers reduce their energy usage and expenses. How do they get to run their businesses doing the things that we know the utility (as a business) is not set up to do well?
So how do we get to a point where the utility gets it’s desired outcome in the form of privacy and fraud protection for the consumer and the 3rd party vendors get access to data that enables them aid the consumers (and run their businesses)? I propose adoption of the Blockchain. Before you click away, I said Blockchain not Bitcoin (the maligned and still misunderstood cryptocurrency). Blockchain is simply a centralized ledger or a read only distributed database. Blockchain takes over the ‘customer storage’ function that the utility currently play. It is an immutable historical record of transactions or usage data in this particular case. The Blockchain technology combines peer-to-peer networks, distributed systems, Hashing functions, public/private key cryptography and cryptographic signatures (amongst other cryptographic techniques). These are not new technologies just cleverly combined. Blockchain is being adopted in industries like finance and healthcare where (I dare suggest) consumer data is more critical than in the utility industry. Using the Blockchain to provide consumer usage data to 3rd party vendors provides
- fraud protection and detection
- consumer anonymity and
- and enables trust in a system that is being run without a middleman.
If implemented properly it’s a win-win-win situation for all involved; the utility gets to ‘protect’ the consumer, the vendors get access to consumer data that is encrypted unless the consumer enables full disclosure and the all important consumer gets the benefit of cutting edge services from 3rd party vendors. This new technology enables us all to focus on the important task of moving us towards more sustainable energy usage. Granted, our industry is not the most friendly towards new technology but we have an opportunity to create new business models and increase consumer satisfaction by peeking round the corner and borrowing from industries that are currently serving the new kind of empowered (energy) consumer..