Big Data Takes Clean Energy by Storm in New York

In late June, a group of 54 senior-level academic, industry and government thought leaders sat down in teams of six to brainstorm ways energy data might be better utilized to tackle weighty environmental challenges, as part of New York Energy Week.

One team imagined how existing electric vehicles might be used as temporary batteries for storing energy that could be utilized by the grid when demand necessitated it. Another envisioned a Mint.com-style site that would easily allow consumers to better understand energy bills and calculate energy savings. The winning idea, determined by popular vote, was a website through which all energy data sets could be standardized.

“People are already building the ideas,” said Angelique Mercurio, founder of the Energy Solutions Forum, the energy policy research group that organized the event.

The U.S. Department of Energy-backed “Data Jam,” one of several events being promoted by the DOE nationwide, put an active face on a message that recurred throughout New York Energy Week. As featured speaker Nick Eisenberger told an audience the morning of the event: “The cleanweb has arrived unarguably…this is not a fad.” A board member at the American Council on Renewable Energy and managing partner at Pure Energy Partners, Eisenberger said he has “come to believe that IT is the most powerful clean technology.”

The potential for IT resources to solve environmental problems is vast, Eisenbergersaid, and the number of cleantech deals has increased in recent years. In 2011, a quarter of cleantech deals had a significant IT component, Eisenberger explained. Investors around the world pumped $1.2 billion into cleanweb ventures that year.

Among the speakers who opened the Data Jam was Hudson Gilmer, VP of Commercial Markets for Genscape, a company that collects publicly available energy data and makes real-time info available to traders in markets like power, natural gas, oil, and biofuels. He said the key challenge that open energy data might help mitigate is the ability to store power in off-peak periods then sell it back during peak periods—a concern that seemed to be reflected in the electric vehicles idea submitted during Data Jam.

Constantine Kontokosta, Deputy Director of New York University’s Center for Urban Science and Progress (CUSP), explained how his organization is focused on collecting and aggregating city data culled from city agencies as well as social networking Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. CUSP hopes to be the leading voice on “urban informatics” intended to improve the quality of city life.

Joule Assets CEO Mike Gordon pointed out that with renewable energy being added to the grid, the need for a “reliability market” will expand, boosting the need for aggregated consumption data for different geographical regions. He pointed out the White House’s new open government data initiative will not only create new markets, but will also help spark new startups, jobs, and community engagement.

New York City Deputy Director of Green Buildings John Lee, Deputy Director of Green Buildings and Energy Efficiency at the NYC Mayor’s Office of Long Term Planning and Sustainability, spoke about the city’s benchmarking law, an initiative the Bloomberg administration put into effect to cull energy consumption data from the city’s biggest buildings annually. “The data set coming out is unprecedented,” Lee said.  But, he asked, “how do you make it useful?”

Mercurio’s Energy Solutions Forum team unveiled their own data product amidst the week’s activities. The enterprise software product EnerKnol seeks to reduce or eliminate the cost of policy research and consulting for those interested in energy investments. A financial industry veteran who previously worked at Barclays, Mercurio recognizes the demand for real-time information created by traders. “Policy consulting is a huge business,” says Mercurio, explaining that consultants retained by major financial institutions can run anywhere from $500,000 to $1,000,000. “For Wall Street, we would, for some people, supplement their folks who are providing advice offline—for others we would replace it.”

Eisenberger said he believes history indicates that IT’s potential knows no bounds. “It took from the beginning of time to about 2003 for $1,000 to purchase the equivalent processing power of an insect’s brain. Seven years later, a mouse’s brain,” he told his New York Energy Week audience. “In ten years from today, according to a century’s worth of data…a thousand dollars will buy the equivalent processing power of a human’s brain.”

A few years after that: “The entire human race in your pocket.”

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