Use of data in the utilities sector needs better regulation

Utilities are becoming digitalized and data-driven. With new digital technologies the condition of infrastructures and the consumption of water and electricity can be measured in ever greater detail. The growing availability of data presents opportunities for infrastructure managers, consumers and businesses, but it also comes with regulatory challenges. Tilburg University PhD candidate Brenda Espinosa AprŠez investigated these regulatory challenges in close cooperation with five Dutch infrastructure operators and came up with several recommendations. She will defend her dissertation on Wednesday 21 December 2022.

Infrastructure managers in the utilities sector can collect very detailed data about the networks that bring water and electricity to our homes with new technologies such as sensors, smart meters, and other connected devices. These data can be used to improve the design of infrastructures, to predict when maintenance is needed and to obtain better insight into the consumption of electricity and drinking water. These data can also be shared and re-used by companies in the same or other sectors, to create innovative products or services.

However, the existing regulations of the utilities sector are not well suited to deal with the changes introduced by digitalization and data-driven innovation. In addition, many new data sharing regulations are being created within and beyond the utilities sector, bringing questions regarding consistency across different legal regimes. A detailed analysis of Dutch and EU legal frameworks brought Brenda Espinosa to the following conclusions and recommendations:†

  • We need to update the regulations of the utilities sector in to deal with both the opportunities and risks from data;
  • We need to strengthen alignment between different regulatory frameworks for data sharing;
  • We need to rethink the regulation of data sharing beyond strict dichotomies of public-private sector data.

  • Regulating opportunities and risks

    For instance, the existing regulations of the Dutch drinking water sector do not yet take into account the new possibilities enabled by the data collected with smart water meters, nor the risks that the collection of more granular data represents for the protection of personal data and privacy of consumers. If smart water meters are to be rolled out in the Netherlands, the regulatory frameworks of the drinking water sector need to be updated and clarify, for example, under which conditions these technologies can be implemented by drinking water companies, for which purposes the data can be used, and how to mitigate the impact of these technologies on the privacy and protection of personal data of consumers.

    Alignment of regulation

    An example of the need for alignment between different data sharing regulatory frameworks is†the interplay between the rules about consumer data sharing in the Recast Electricity Directive and the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) of the EU. They have different objectives, levels of implementation and supervisory authorities and alignment between them cannot be taken for granted. Therefore, Member States should put in place rules and procedures to clarify the interplay them, and to strengthen cooperation between data protection authorities and energy regulators.

    Regulating data sharing beyond the ’public-private data dichotomy’

    The regulation of data sharing based on strict distinctions between public and private sector data needs to be rethought. Having diametrically different rules for the sharing of data held by public and private organizations is a shortcut and fails to acknowledge the growing role of private companies in the creation of data with high socio-economic relevance. There are several ways to improve this, according to Espinosa: for example, by expanding the scope of the Open Data Directive to make it applicable to data held by private companies active in the utilities sector, and by reconceptualizing the notion of ’public data’ focusing less on who is the data holder and more on the purposes for which data can be re-used.

    Research partners

    The societal impact of this collaboration was acknowledged by the nomination of the LONGA VIA project to the Tilburg University Impact Award in 2021.

    PhD defense

    Brenda Espinosa AprŠez will defend her dissertation on Wednesday December 21st, 2022, 4 PM at Tilburg University. The defense can be followed by livestream . Title dissertation: ’Dealing with data: A study on the regulatory challenges of data-driven innovation and data sharing in the digitalized utilities and how to deal with them’. Supervisors: Prof. S.A.C.M. Lavrijssen, Prof. M.L.P. Groenleer; co-supervisor: Dr. I.J.M.A. Graef.

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