By Suzanne Russo, CEO, Pecan Street

There’s no shortage of questions about data these days. For example, who owns it, who controls it, and who is responsible for protecting it?

In most mainstream conversations, “it” usually refers to personal information like credit card numbers, addresses, location, internet activity and other details that come with living in a digital world. But the data challenge extends far beyond Amazon, Google and Facebook. Data is everywhere. In our work at Pecan Street, conversations about distributed energy are often conversations about data.

In many regards, data meets the criteria of a utility. It’s a commodity that most of us would argue is a necessary part of modern life. That raises lots of questions.

How do we manage something that’s already provided by so many non-utility entities?

Should a regulated data management industry be developed to protect our data?

Would a regulated entity that had authority to standardize and manage data exchanges accelerate innovations in the public interest or hamper them?

All industries – not just energy companies – need to address these questions sooner rather than later.

Each entity that generates or holds personal data about you or your home or business is the owner, or co-owner with you, of that data and is responsible for protecting your privacy by ethically managing that data. In some industries – banking, for example – data privacy is highly regulated. In other industries, regulations vary state by state or don’t exist at all.

In the electricity sector, utilities are able to directly access some smart devices if you give them permission to do so, such as by signing up for a demand response program that allows the utility to adjust your thermostat setting a few times a year to help control peak demand.

As rooftop solar, electric vehicles and energy storage systems become cheaper and are purchased by more households, they are increasingly coming with a lot of smarts built in. At Pecan Street, we’ve found that the newer generations of these distributed energy systems – specifically smart inverters – can collect a lot of information about what’s happening on the grid. That could be useful utilities and could let these distributed energy systems respond in ways that provide valuable grid management services.

But, the DERs need to be able to respond almost immediately – typically on less than a second to two-second timescale – in order to realize their full value. Smart inverter-enabled systems can technically do that, but currently aren’t allowed to. The grid and these home-level devices would need to be able to communicate in real-time and there are no standards that allow for that right now. More crucially, the IEEE and ISO standards for data security, cybersecurity, and privacy standards emphasize applications for communicating to an aggregator, which will slow the overall response time of the systems and reduce overall value. The lack of standardized data reporting out of smart home devices is already hampering efforts to better align our energy demand with clean energy supply.

Electric utilities are already regulated and have a lot of responsibilities, so they aren’t chomping at the bit to be responsible for your data. And though individual companies would love to get control of this marketplace, giving one or a few private companies responsibility and ownership of your data and the intersection between device-level data with the entire grid isn’t appealing either. There’s plenty of recent news that points to why we need better stewardship of personal data collected by tech companies.

Could the answer be a fifth utility: a regulated utility for data – all of our personal data?

Utilities provide the public with necessary basic services or commodities, like electricity, gas, water, and communications. As we become an increasingly tech- and data-centric society, the huge amount of data collected on us by our smart devices is a significant threat when not properly and securely managed. Think about all the services that depend on location data: map apps, Facebook, Instagram, Yelp, etc. Cell phone location data is now used by emergency responders when deploying rapid resources after natural disasters. A case in point: Facebook creates maps for disaster responders because they aren’t sure how to legally share what they consider ‘private’ data with these entities in order for them to create their own maps.

Now translate those data questions to your energy life. How much electricity do you use, and for what? What appliances do you own, and how do they share their data? And with whom? Who gets to know how much energy your solar panels generated or how often you charge your electric vehicle? Who’s responsible for keeping that data safe, secure and private? We should think about these questions now – and develop some good answers – before everyone realizes the answer is nobody.