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Public Utilities Commission approves Open Data Access Standards

Published June 18, 2024

CUB is happy to announce that the PUC granted final approval to implement Open Data Access Standards by making anonymized data available to qualifying entities. Now that the Standards are fully implemented, energy researchers will be able to more effectively analyze utility data and contribute valuable insights into how energy systems can be improved. 

CUB originally filed a petition with the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to adopt Open Data Access Standards in 2019. The Standards allow certain third parties to access customer energy use data that is aggregated or anonymized to protect customers’ privacy. As we have previously written, this data is instrumental for energy researchers studying opportunities to reduce waste, save consumers money, identify and eliminate inequities in the energy system, and cut greenhouse gas emissions.  

What data is available?

The Open Data Access Standards CUB proposed set rules about when third parties can request, and utilities generally must share data about customers’ energy use. Under the Standards, certain third parties (like local governments, researchers, and nonprofits like CUB) can request customer energy use data from large, regulated utility companies. This data can only be shared if it is presented in a way that protects customer privacy in one of two ways: it must either be “aggregated,” combining multiple customers into a single data point, or “anonymized,” including many customers so that no single customer can be identified from a group. As in other states that have instituted similar rules: each data set must include a minimum number of customers, and no single customers’ energy use may constitute more than a certain percent of the usage in the data set. The Standards also restrict who can request data from a utility, set limits on the geographic boundaries by which data can be requested, and take additional steps to protect customer privacy. 

In 2020, the PUC adopted CUB’s proposed Standards for access to energy data. The PUC has been implementing the Standards incrementally since then. To start, the PUC required utilities to share energy use data aggregated at the building level with building owners, local units of government, and nonprofit organizations for the purpose of public interest research or energy benchmarking.   

In 2023, the PUC took another incremental step to implement the Standards by making aggregated data available at all geographic scales. This action allowed local governments to use community-level energy data to inform city and county greenhouse gas reduction planning and enabled researchers to develop resources such as the Regional Indicators Initiative

The last portion of the Standards that the PUC approved at the beginning of June made anonymized data available to researchers and other qualifying entities. This granular data allows the energy system to be more comprehensively evaluated, and opens up opportunities for resolving or mitigating system and rate inequalities. 

The value of anonymized energy use data 

Anonymized energy use data is essential to understanding and addressing inequities in utility rates and programs. Data about an “average” customer can hide severe inequities in affordability, rate design, and program delivery that likely align with Minnesota’s deep racial disparities. Multiple studies suggest that such disparities extend to energy affordability. However, detailed analyses of disparities in Minnesota utilities’ rates and programs are limited by the fact that Minnesota utilities (with good reason) do not generally collect demographic information on their customers.

Analysis of anonymized customer energy use data can help fill this gap.

For example, a 2019 analysis done by the Citizens Utility Board of Illinois found that low-income households in the Chicago area generally use little electricity during the most expensive, peak-demand hours. As a result, low-income households paying typical flat electric rates (in which electricity costs the same at all times of day) are paying more than their fair share and subsidizing their higher-income neighbors. 

Separately, researchers who examined anonymized use data from the Salt River Project in Arizona found that low-income and BIPOC households limit their use of energy compared with wealthier households, revealing ‘’hidden energy poverty.” 

These and other analyses of anonymized energy usage data provide important insights that cannot be gleaned from the higher-level summary data that was previously available to third parties in Minnesota. The PUC’s recent decision makes anonymized data available to researchers, governments, and nonprofit organizations. By evaluating this data, disparities in the energy system can be identified and addressed through improved rate structures, service quality, and affordability. Such analyses are very important as Minnesota weighs options like time-of-use rates and considers proposed utility rate increases. 

Author: Brandon Crawford

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