On October 16th, 2015, ERCOT held a workshop on "Improving Third Party Access to Smart Meter Texas (SMT)" in Austin, Texas. My presentation focused on third party-led authorizations. To understand what that means, let us begin by describing a typical, customer-led authorization.

Jane Smith wants to share her smart meter data with her thermostat maker (or any third party energy services provider). The thermostat company offers energy management tools through its website and accompanying smartphone app. By sharing energy use data, Jane can receive text/SMS notifications when there are opportunities to cut her monthly bills. So Jane goes to her utility (in monopoly states) or the Smart Meter Texas (SMT) website (if a resident in a competitive area of Texas). She logs in, then clicks to share her data with the thermostat company.

Sounds simple, right? For tech-savvy users, the process might seem easy at first. But it can be a pain, even for those with smartphones and lots of computer expertise. Here are some key friction points:

  • First, Jane agrees online, on the phone, or in person to sign up for the thermostat's service.
  • Next, Jane needs an account on her utility's website (or with SMT, if in Texas). SMT requires the name of your current Retail Electric Provider (REP), your ESIID and meter number in order to create an account. Good luck finding that information! Unfortunately, SMT (run by the distribution utilities, not the retail energy providers) has no idea who you are, so your social security number and mother's maiden name won't provide a shortcut.
  • Upon creating an online account, many customers are forced to sacrifice paper bills and receive e-bills only. For many businesses, internal financial controls and accounts payable processes may require paper bills that arrive by snail mail. So online accounts aren't always possible.
  • Once Jane has an online account with SMT, the thermostat company must send an invitation by email to Jane asking for her approval to access her data.
  • Jane has to log back into SMT, where it might take three to six clicks to actually share the usage data. Most utilities lack incentives to make their websites usable and conform with modern best practices, so finding the Green Button needle in the haystack could result in a failure rate of customers at this stage of 30-50% or more.  There may be technical support calls with the thermostat company to walk Jane through the process.
  • In Colorado and other states, utilities have lengthy forms for you to fill out before they are comfortable sharing anything. You may need to find your meter ID number (difficult for property managers who oversee many locations). You'll need to specify whether the data-sharing is one-time or ongoing and the purpose of the thermostat company's software, and set an expiration date for data sharing.

These are only a few of the barriers. That's why a third party-led process can be refreshingly easy. Here's how it works: Jane downloads the smartphone app that's tied to her thermostat. It prompts her to enter her address and take a photo of her meter and/or her electric bill. The photo contains the meter ID number or account number that's needed to validate Jane's identity. But Jane doesn't need to know that - she just needs to snap a photo. Jane clicks "Submit," and her energy management service begins immediately.

The benefits of a third party-led authorization process over a customer-led process are compelling. They include:

  • There are no forms to fill out
  • The third party takes care of everything
  • The customer is not bounced like a ping-pong ball between app maker and utility if there's a problem
  • The app maker, unlike the utility, is incented to make the pocess as easy and smooth as possible