Smarten up, people

Though it’s been brewing for a while, there was still something surprising about this recent article in the New York Times walking through the complaints mounting against California utility PG&E’s smart meter program. When reports broke during initial deployment that some meters were recording inaccurately, it was hard not to sympathize with both the consumers forced to appeal to PG&E for relief and with the PG&E staffers doing their level best to roll out the program. But things seem to have taken a new turn, and it’s harder to dole out sympathy quite as evenly this time around.

For those who aren’t familiar with the smart meters, the basic idea is to replace analog meters read by hand (er, by eye), with digital meters which transmit electricity usage information wirelessly and presumably more accurately back to the utility. This technology enables but does not automatically trigger a variety of new rate-setting possibilities, most notably time-of-day pricing. By the same token, it enables the utility to provide consumers with more detailed information about their energy use; this data can be helpful for consumers hoping to reduce their consumption or even just their bills (though there are other services which don’t involve smart meters which achieve some of the same goals). Finally, smart meters may eventually tie back into the smart grid, allowing utilities to manage power distribution better by optimizing power available from small, distributed energy sources.

Now for the difficulties.

First off, there’s the issue of electromagnetic hypersensitivity, which a 2002 questionnaire suggested affects as many as 3% of all Californians. Predictably, with 7 million wireless smart meters now installed, a solid population of consumers are telling PG&E they do not want to be forced into having a wireless device in or near their homes. Though spokespeople for PG&E are welcome to repeat that [studies haven’t shown a link between wireless data transmission and poor health, surely it’s reasonable to expect the utility to offer a wired alternative.

Secondly, there’s the issue of privacy. In a nutshell, some consumers are worried about PG&E knowing about power usage in 15-minute increments, as opposed to once every week (or other longer interval). Some large lobby groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation have taken up the cause as well. This strikes me as a concern from 1995 sliding through a wormhole to appear in 2011. We live in a world with 500 million Facebook profiles, with an entire industry springing up around online marketing re-targeting, yes, that’s re-targeting, a Twitterverse that is tuned not to 15-minute increments but to 15-second increments. And our credit card companies know pretty much everything about everyone. The idea that a burglar is going to hack utility data to figure out the optimal time to steal the TV just seems … dare I say paranoid?

Seriously, I understand the concerns about privacy. Nobody likes any large company knowing more than they seem to know. But it’s important for everyone to give up some individual information as we all try to figure out how to deliver energy more intelligently in the long run, and yes, to enable pricing systems which more closely reflect the cost of the underlying power. There’s a reason they call it the smart grid, after all, and it can’t be smart if we insist that all the meters have to be stupid.

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erik

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  1. lee - February 10, 2011

    just how big of a problem is this? if you let people opt out for whatever reasons, will there be enough non-participation to make the entire “smart grid” unworkable? and if this is a significant issue, why not give consumers an incentive to get a smart meter? i would assume they save the electric companies money in what it costs them to “read” the meters and generate the monthly bills. so why not pass along part of that savings to the consumer?

  2. TEXAS - February 11, 2011

    I have little sympathy for those smart meter complaints realizing how MUCH information people seemingly eagerly share via emails, twitter etc. Would they have more action & concern about the kids who terrorize kids they don’t like on line – to the point of some suicides.
    Get real,
    TEXAS

  3. Solarnet Caspar - February 11, 2011

    I’m right in the middle of this, here on the Mendocino Coast. I must say, your facile argument and the brain-dead comment from Texas — let’s just say we Californios don’t take kindly to utterances from Texas about electricity after Enron’s effort to bankrupt our state.
    As a scientist and renewable energy consultant, I started out on “your side,” but PG&E’s high-handedness and tone deafness, and the plaintive cries of my neighbors, have swung me firmly to the other side. My meters have “Don’t Replace” stickers on them.
    Some home truths: not everybody Facebooks or Tweets, so that argument is simply dishonorable. Some people gladly publish pictures of themselves topless, and others cling to the shreds of their privacy. I know this may shock you, but *some people don’t even have computers!* Whether you have sympathy or not, Texas, this is the USofA and those people have a right to their dearly held freedoms. What this issue has to do with terrorism or suicide (except that it gets your heart pumping) evades me.
    Now some realities. All the science on Electro-Magnetic Radiation (EMR) is tainted and/or incomplete; it’s more politics and commerce than hard science. There *are* people who are electromagnetically sensitive, just as there are people who are chemically sensitive — what if they’re the canaries in our coal mine? Shall we just shoot them? Some of these people have been able to prove, at some personal discomfort, their sensitivity. Again, this is the USofA, and we try not to hurt our neighbors, even for profit. Can you say “Precautionary Principle”?
    Point two: we’re tired of being lied to by corporations and government. PG&E dramatically underestimated the amount of EMR that consumers would be subjected to, because they told us about a “typical” installation. California, some of you may have noticed, is bumpy, and the smart meters (SMs) use a network concentration scheme to get their signals out. If you’re unlucky enough to live at the mouth of a canyon, all the upstream meters will be using your meter as a transfer station for data, and your exposure may be two or three orders of magnitude higher than the “maximum” claimed by PG&E. If they’re willing to lie about that, what else are they misrepresenting?
    There can be no doubt that metering a stressed resource helps us use it more intelligently — that’s why many cars now show instantaneous MPGs. But PG&E’s offer to use the internet to make our usage available struck many of us as scary. This system has already been hacked, so what’s to prevent clever thieves from comparing baseline residence usage with present, and identifying unoccupied homes, even for an evening, to favor with a little light-fingered shopping? THAT’s the root of our privacy worry.
    Finally, we can’t help but wonder what’s behind PG&E’s rush to install? When was the last time a big company did something for YOU that wasn’t a bigger benefit for them?
    So, while I’m all in favor of the smart grid, and completely get that we need to monitor and control usage, I’m not ready to be hasty about it, and I think PG&E’s choice of technology was sloppy, ill-advised, and likely tainted. We are not allowed to opt out; our only choice is to be put at the end of the re-metering queue and postpone the onslaught of EMR and hackers for a couple of months. To us, this whole thing looks like a precipitous and poorly implemented imposition from on high. Californians don’t like that.
    As a professional in the energy industry, I think this whole thing is upside down. We should be working toward a distributive smart grid that utilizes power wherever we find it — not another study (that’s what these SMs are) but a whole-hearted Give Us Your Roofs SMUD style revolution. Let’s also get serious about industrial economies, and paying fairly for the power we use. Enough with the wink wink about Clean Coal, nuclear power, and, yes, carbon offsets. I’m a net producer of electricity. Why aren’t you?

  4. GB Smith - February 12, 2011

    Actual hard evidence (published, reputable source, statistically meaningful, preferably vetted by peer-reviewed publication) of sensitivity to electro-magnetic radiation at the levels used by a smart meter is non-existent. The 2002 questionnaire mentioned in the article refers to ***self-reported*** sensitivity. I would guess that the same 3% of folks who report such hyper-sensitivity is matched by the percentage who have observed flying saucers.
    It may be reasonable for PG&E to offer a wired alternative to wireless, but those who want to take advantage of this should be required to pay for the added cost, which cannot be trivial. There is no rational or economically justifiable reason to impose that cost on the rest of us.
    For those who find the modest infringements on privacy caused by dealing with a public electrical utility to be too intolerable, there are lots of commercial solutions out there for (for example) off-the-grid solar solutions. A few PV panels, an inverter, some batteries, and away you go. Not cheap, but that’s one of the trade-offs with being dependent on a public utility.
    It’s curious how the number of people who claim to be interested in saving the planet is far greater than the number of people actually willing to submit to any inconvenience to help do it.

  5. Bryan - February 13, 2011

    I’m another TX resident, but I agree in part with Solarnet that the other TX comment was facile. I think there are many more Texans and TX residents (there is a difference) that would not be in favor of smart meters, but for a different reason than privacy.
    The “basic” purpose for smart meters is not the wireless transmission of usage “more accurately”. That’s only the means. The end is the application of time-of-day metering. So, not only are customers having to pay for the smart meters, ultimately, they are going to see higher rates because of it. While the presumably lower off-peak rates are available to offset the higher peak rates, I’m doubtful that it will work out that way.

  6. colorado - February 14, 2011

    Let us stop with the attacks and get rational. Yes, in theory smart meters are a great idea however, when put into practice out on the ground reality often doesn’t live up to expectations of theory.
    Yes, there are people who are especially sensitive to electromagnaetic fields, just as there are people who are particularly sensitive to chemicals like household cleaners etc, and there are even people who are allergic to titanium. Ture, the percentage of the population might be small but their rights must also be respected.
    Privacy? When we started using creidt cards and ordering on line etc we should have already suspected that our privacy was being eroded. When we do mail order from a catelog our data is being shared by direct mailers. It is hard to retain privacy to any large extent.
    If you want to retain the maximum amount of privacy don’t: a) twitter, b)Facebook, c) use a credit card, d) use mail order catelogs, e) have a computer that is connected to anything other that a powersupply and so forth.

  7. lora bruncke - February 20, 2011

    Smart water meters?
    They were installed in our Summerland,BC homes last year so we could ‘preserve water’.
    They offered to install it in the house for free or at the curb for a $800+ fee. Most went in the home for obvious reasons.
    What the city forgot was that the pipes between the road and the home are now unmetered. I was actually leaking for two months from a tiny hole out in my front yard which was probably caused by a water hammer when the tech installed my water meter.
    In other words, if the meter is in the home, water can leak (or be stolen) between the house and the street and no one will ever figure it out because there is no way to reconcile the water output with the house input.
    By the way, I had to dig up my front yard in the middle of the winter to fix it. The city passed a bylaw just before to say if the leak was between the street and the house the owner had to pay.
    $860 later I still had a water meter that will only meter the water that comes into the house!!!!!!