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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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