The Federal Budget has renewed hope that Australia might be ready to take the next step towards energy democracy – putting power users in control of their own data. Among the big-ticket items the budget was a small but vital commitment that many people missed – nearly $30 million towards the creation of a consumer data right for energy. At a time when the Australian energy sector is transforming and transitioning, this is a crucial commitment.
With Australia having reached its 2019 renewable energy target and renewable generation – as well as battery storage – set to dominate our future generation mix, the ideological arguments of the national political conversation are more removed from the commercial realities of the energy market than ever.
The price of renewable energy is falling rapidly, and the price of renewable fuels has always been zero – nobody has yet mastered the provision of Sunlight-as-a-Service. We are also among the world’s most technically advanced countries as far as smart meter rollout is concerned – not that most consumers would know this, as they have seen virtually no benefit from the technology, despite funding it.
Smart meters record detailed data of an energy user’s personal habits – how many people are in the house, whether any of them uses a CPAP machine, what time they go to bed, how long the sleep for and what devices they are using at what time. If there is a baby monitor in the house, it can tell us when they have children and how old those children are. If it’s combined with other datasets, like those generated by web browsing and mobile phone use, it can produce an even more detailed picture.
This is why I was particularly concerned when a partnership between a large smart meter company Vector and global internet giant Amazon was announced. The deal would see AWS servers used to store and analyse the data of 1.3 million households across Australia and New Zealand, where it will be used for, among other purposes, “product development”. The announcement, in the same week as tech giants fronted US Congress to answer questions about their use of data and market power, could have serious implications for Australian energy users.
In my home country of Estonia where I was CTO of the national electricity network, such a deal would be explicitly outlawed without the individual consent of 1.3 million energy account holders. The same would be true in most European countries. I am deeply concerned that the regulatory attitude in my adopted country to the non-consensual sharing of such data is so apparently blase.
Smart meter data, properly handled, could bring great benefits to consumers and to the nation as a whole. Already industrial users who have the capability to make informed choices about sharing their data are able to use this to directly procure renewable energy without the need for offsets. This practice, set to become more widespread as the technology used to facilitate it matures, is a form of direct energy democracy, where energy use data can be leveraged to enable the end user of energy to choose which generation project it supports with its energy expenditure.
In Europe, similar offerings are becoming available for consumers at a household level. This is possible because in European markets, a consumer data right allows people to choose to share their smart meter data for this purpose. This right is GDPR compliant, and the EU is a leader in consumer and privacy protection legislation.
Energy data from smart meters in Australia is being used at the whim of big energy companies and their technology partners. Their interests do not align with those of consumers. Australia needs a consumer data right for energy users that puts people in control of who has access to their energy data, and for what purposes they may use it.
The competition regulator has flagged energy as the next industry after financial services for the introduction of a consumer data right, but there has been little action to make this a reality. Such action is desperately needed, and the form that this right takes must benefit consumers over established energy companies.
If we can give people the power to “vote” with their energy use by choosing – directly and verifiably, without the need for opaque offset schemes – which projects and generation technologies their energy expenditure supports, we can further accelerate the shift to renewable energy technologies. We can also support their fundamental right to privacy and their ownership of data generated by their own activities – central rights in a 21st-century democracy.
We have the technical capability to do this now, with smart meters and sophisticated energy procurement technology already present in the market. The barrier to energy democracy is now only a regulatory one. We should replace regulations that put people’s personal data in the hands of big energy companies and global tech giants with a regime that empowers energy users to control their own data, and allows people to “vote with their dollars” for a clean energy future.
The budget announcement is a welcome step that must be followed with action to put energy users large and small in control of their own data, and of our energy future.
Kaspar Kaarlep is the CTO and founder of energy technology company WePower. He was previously the CTO of the Estonian national electricity network.