The Government Open-Data Program At The Root Of Energy-Efficiency Startups

The Green Button program has forced utilities to standardize the way they present their energy use numbers to their customers. In turn, that data has caused an explosion of apps and services to help you save energy–and money.

The Government Open-Data Program At The Root Of Energy-Efficiency Startups
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It’s only a voluntary initiative. And, at the moment, not more than two dozen utilities have signed up. But the government-created Green Button is already showing how standardizing energy data could pay big efficiency dividends.


Launched in early 2012, the plan aims to the end the haphazard way utilities distribute energy-usage data to their customers. Instead of multiple formats, the Button codifies a single layout–all available from the click of a button on a web site. Once the committed companies have complied, more than 27 million households will have access.

Importantly, the Green Button is spurring a host of info-intermediaries, allowing customers not only to get their data, but to manipulate it in new ways, benchmark buildings against peers, and apply for efficiency ratings, like the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star.

“By standardizing in this way, you are really democratizing energy information where anyone can take that data and build a product around it, so that the format will be the same no matter where you are,” says Craig Isakow, founder of Melon Power, a service for commercial building managers. (“Melon” is a play on Energy Secretary Stephen Chu’s statement that “energy efficiency is not just low-hanging fruit; it is fruit that is lying on the ground.”)

Melon helps owners to apply for Energy Star status (a valuable marker), and to comply with mandatory energy-efficiency filing requirements in places like California, New York, and Washington, D.C. Isakow compares the service to Turbo Tax–but for energy.

To apply for an Energy Star, owners have to produce data proving their buildings achieve a score of at least 75 out of 100. In the past, they would need to rifle through utility bills and enter the information laboriously into the E.P.A’s Portfolio Manager. By automating the process, Melon claims to save managers at least four hours.

Melon also benchmarks similar buildings, and suggests ways managers could improve, for example by introducing new types of heating, lighting, or insulation.


Melon won second prize in a government-organized Apps for Energy contest this summer. First prize went to Leafully, which visualizes customers’ energy use by the number of trees needed to offset the associated carbon emissions. Users can also set energy-saving goals, and share their progress with friends on Facebook.

Picking up third prize, VELOBill, simplifies power (and water) bills, driving out some notorious obfuscation. You can compare bills against a peer group, create a plan to save energy, and get some useful advice. None of the services would really be possible without the Green Button, which allows service creators to get to work on the data.

It’s early days. As of the end of last year, owners had submitted about 40% of commercial properties to the Portfolio Manager. But many of those have yet to achieve full status, and millions have not yet started the process (there are about 5 million commercial properties). And that’s before you’ve thought about the residential sector.

“The Green Button has a lot of potential, but it’s important to remember that it’s still early. On top of electricity, there’s also lot we can do in gas and water, as well,” Isakow says.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.