Guest Article #89

Opening Up Energy Data to SMEs: Core Business for SE4All

In the fight against climate change, shifting the energy sector from fossil fuels to clean energy requires a massive, transformative change, not least in mindset. The challenge is particularly stark in those countries where the industry is dominated by large state-owned power producers.

But how can this sort of mindset change actually be unleashed? The oft-cited cellphone example shows that it is outsiders who can bring break-through change to a monopolistic and centralised industry. These new entrants do not directly challenge the existing players – they simply bypass them by offering a new kind of service.

So the question changes from pondering vaguely about how to change mindsets, to a much more specific one: How can we best unleash a swarm of small and medium-sized clean energy upstarts who will bring change from below, and move from an old-school energy supply model to a modern energy services one?

Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) enable deep change

In our work at REEEP, we see how smaller enterprises are motors for the clean energy transformation. On a broad level, SMEs provide more employment opportunities and spread wealth more widely into poorer social strata than large corporations do because they are tied to local communities and answer local needs.

In the clean energy world, they play a vital role in increasing energy access, and in this way they deserve a strong focus by the United Nations' Sustainable Energy for All (SE4All) initiative: small companies and individual entrepreneurs are often providing the only viable channels for distributing clean energy solutions in remote and rural areas, many of which already feel the effects of climate change.

Data enables change – and is already in the public domain

In order to develop new products and services, innovative SMEs have an insatiable thirst for information. How big is the potential market? Who are the potential customers? Which of their everyday needs are still unmet? How can I reach them?

Much of this information is already collected by government sources, who compile statistics on energy use, population patterns, living standards and demographics.

If we actually can free up this information – both energy and climate data – and make it available and accessible to all, this will directly stimulate the energy market and inspire new entrants. The more climate-relevant data are included, the better also for other adaptation solutions!

Currently there are two main obstacles to free availability: obtaining such data can be expensive; and often data are widely spread in different databases or 'silos.' Happily, there are two emerging movements that tackle exactly these two issues.

Open Government Data unlock information - and Linked Open Data cross-link it

In answer to the need to make data more accessible, the Open Government Partnership was started by the US and the UK about four years ago. It maintains that all data collected with public money should be published at no charge to users, and made available for re-use by anyone. This includes all sectors, not just energy.

Originally mostly in OECD countries, the Open Government Data movement has meanwhile reached more than 50 members. Key emerging markets such as Brazil and Indonesia have come on board, and developing countries are now taking hold: Kenya and Ghana are the first two African countries to join. Institutions such as the World Bank and the European Commission are also part of the game.

Governments are beginning to realise that real economic value can be derived from data – but only if the data are actually being used. The market is much better poised to create new applications and generate value.

Meanwhile, a second innovation in the Internet world is addressing the sheer mass and confusion of data that exist on almost every topic. Linked Open Data is a common technical framework for making data sets available to anyone via the Internet. This means that information from one particular database can be combined with that of other websites, portals and databases anywhere. This system is so far the most effective way to dissolve the silos.

A concrete example of Linked Open Data in action: the REEEP-operated clean energy portal offers Country Energy Profiles. For 198 countries, the website pulls information from eight different online data sources including OpenEI, World Bank, UN Data, and Wikipedia to create a one-stop dossier of energy-related information in one clear, digestible format.

A potent combination: SMEs and open data

Unleashing the entrepreneurial spirit of small and medium-sized enterprises is the best route for transforming energy systems to low carbon technologies, and for using them to increase energy access. Making government data widely and openly accessible and ensuring that data from different sources can be openly combined will set the stage for a much more vibrant energy market, and create a whole new generation of revolutionary start-ups. These new forms of accessing and managing data will also be critical for developing adaptation solutions that work.