Standard Formats for Utility Bills: Why it Matters

When it comes to solving the nation’s energy crisis utility bills hardly seem like much of a big deal.  But improving access to the information in the billing records of the nation’s gas and electric utilities could provide powerful tools to increase the efficiency of energy use in the US.  This is particularly true in residential and commercial buildings that consume 70% of US electricity and are responsible for 40% of all US greenhouse gas emissions.

Unfortunately, utility bill information is stored in a huge number of idiosyncratic formats and is not accessible to individuals and organizations that could use it.  This complex, un-standardized landscape means that anyone interested in comparing their energy use with national averages, or understanding how their building is performing in terms of energy consumption, has to do an enormous amount of work sorting through confusing bill information.  The small investment it would take to get these billing records into standardized formats, and making them easily available to anyone with permission to use them, would pay large dividends, for example by helping individual consumers make better decisions when they are purchasing and operating buildings, and by helping officials managing public programs designed to encourage building energy efficiency make better management decisions.

In the future, detailed information about patterns of consumption may make sense when there’s widespread use of “smart meters” that keep track of energy use minute by minute, and possibly appliance by appliance.  But major gains are possible simply by reporting energy use for each month.  Here are some examples:

  • Legislation could require that billing records and benchmarking data be disclosed to potential buyers at time of sale.  Labels providing data on a building’s energy use have been developed in Europe and are being considered in California and other parts of the US.  Most labels being considered include both calculated energy demand (called “asset rating”) and measured energy consumption (called an “operational rating”).   The US Environmental Protection Agency has developed a tool called a portfolio manager that lets building owners compare the energy performance of their buildings with the performance of similar buildings in similar climates.  At present nothing similar is available for residential buildings. The burden on the user would be greatly reduced if billing data can be uploaded automatically, using standardized formats.
  • If billing records for a building are available online with suitable permissions, a utility, or a third party like Google could provide a service where a consumer could go on line, identify themselves with an appropriate password, and get access to the building’s history of energy use by month – preferably several years of data.  This could then be automatically compared with energy use from similar structures in similar climates, and estimates of the reductions likely to result from cost-effective retrofits.  Consumers might well be motivated to take action.  Benchmarking tools for this purpose have already been developed by the Environmental Protection Agency.
  • Good building energy audits involve entering data about a structure into a computer model that estimates a building’s energy use and also computes the savings that would result from different retrofit measures that could be taken (adding insulation, replacing windows, etc.)   Unfortunately these models are often wrong since the outcome depends on the skill and experience of the person using them.  Accuracy can be improved if the models include an analysis of the actual energy consumption of the structure.  Monthly consumption data, made available to building auditors by permission of the building owner, can be used to track the sources of inaccuracy in the data input and, and algorithms could be developed over time that would suggest corrections to the user.   Improved models will lead directly to retrofits that show better performance and are more cost-effective.   The cost of doing this would be greatly reduced if auditors could access consumption data directly over the internet using appropriate network security tools.  In the future most auditors are likely to be using wireless, handheld units at the building site to collect data and perform the energy use estimates.  These could also have direct access to the data.  The software for these tools would need to be adjusted for each utility if each company keeps data in a different format – at a significant increase in cost.
  • Utility data available online could also be used to strengthen project management for retrofit programs.  The performance of individual auditing and contractor teams could be continuously measured and compared based on the actual impact their work had on energy use in the buildings they serviced.   The persistence of savings could be measured over a period of years and the actual performance of different approaches to retrofits compared in ways that could lead to continuous improvement of the programs.  This, of course, would require collecting and maintaining data on the kinds of measures undertaken and  the cost of the installations in a standardized format.
  • Energy use data collected in a consistent form would also permit continuous analysis of progress, or lack of progress, of city, state, and national programs to improve energy efficiency.  It could be used, for example, to compare programs in different cities, and track the impact of different policy interventions in considerable detail.  While care would need to be taken to ensure that identifiable personal information is not released, statistical agencies have considerable experience in analyzing data scheduled for publication to ensure that this doesn’t happen – and they have a good track record of success.  The novelty in this new system, of course, would be that the data would be gathered online.  Careful design of network security would needed.
  • The introduction of “smart grid” technology will open more opportunities for collecting detailed information about building performance.  The new systems will let building owners and utilities adjust consumption to avoid system peaks and provide information useful for understanding the consumption of specific equipment in the buildings that can, among other things, be used to understand the impact of any retrofit measures undertaken in the building — with statistically significant samples.   The smart grid will require standardized approaches to measuring and reporting consumption data.

Taken together, the benefits of a consistent national format for the energy consumption of individual utility customers would be considerable.  The benefits would include much improved management and accountability for retrofit program funds, and more energy savings per dollar invested.  While some utilities may complain about the cost of converting existing data formats to a new format, the overall costs would be small compared with the savings that could be achieved.

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5 Responses to “Standard Formats for Utility Bills: Why it Matters”

  1. Peter Leach April 23, 2009 at 2:05 AM #

    An awful lot of costly scientific analysis for the sake of its own self perpetuation? Why would you possibly want to calculate all the latent energy and energy used on the planet if at all possible, to save a few dollars, when by comparison and with necessity as the mother of invention, science will adopt the never ending free energy supply from the sun?

  2. Kevin Skurski June 5, 2009 at 6:46 PM #

    We couldn’t agree more about the importance of standardized, online utility bills. We see the problem with the current situation all the time – contractors, engineers, and other building service providers are stymied or slowed down in their efforts to conduct energy assessments or audits because of the difficulty of getting or inputting utility bills. The complexity of the software needed to analyze this information is also increased due to the lack of standardization.
    If we want to get anywhere close to goals around energy usage, carbon emissions, etc., an important starting place is a solid understanding of where we are now and what we can do to have the most impact. Utility bill standardization must be a part of this.

  3. Sue | African Housing July 21, 2009 at 4:57 AM #

    I have to agree with this topic and its nice to see that you are having problems that side of the world too, here in South Africa all of a sudden power and electricity have become a huge issue,with government and the power people saying that we are running out of this resource last year they even had a thing called load shedding trying to get people to relies that there is a problem but these people did this i the middle of winter in the most prime time usage, creating huge problems and funny this year nothing but they did hike up the price a great deal.

  4. Mike Thomas September 1, 2009 at 7:17 PM #

    Amen. Much of the work my company does is helping building owners overcome exactly this problem. Unfortunately we’re dealing with an obsolete utility industry structure.

    Replacement of standard meters with smart meters, though not essential for data standardization, is a logical first step. But that job, when you include the hardware and software infrastructure needed to support the meters, is very expensive. Utilities own the meters, and have no motivation to replace them until they are legislated and someone else covers the cost.

    Many utilities will resist any kind of information transparency. If regulators continue to allow it, complex and confusing billing is a viable business tactic. Why would an encumbent, with a monopoly mentality, willingly give it’s customers the information they need to shop around?

    Thanks for this post. The answer has to come from industry regulators, and they have yet to grasp the problem.

  5. Carmine Irish June 10, 2010 at 7:07 PM #

    Made my night. I’m looking for your recent stuff now

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