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Smart Meters - Realtime Consumer Access Lacking

written by: Tony Smejek•edited by: Lamar Stonecypher•updated: 4/19/2011

Tired of your old electric meter with the odometer-like read out? Want a new smart electric meter that will give you real-time electric data in a dynamic environment so you can learn to save on energy? The smart meter is here and is as green as ever, but is the data in it really yours?

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    California's Smart Meter Pilot Program

    There are always ideas for new technologies and methods to make energy saving appealing. Smart electric meters were one such idea, but they turned out to be not so appealing for some of the people of California in the summer of 2009.

    Bakersfield, California is a high oil usage and agricultural town. Due to the energy crisis of 2000-2001, blackouts during peak periods in the summer there were prominent. Between 2003-2005, California decided to run a pilot program for 2,500 residents of Bakersfield to have smart electric meters installed in their homes in order to save energy in the community. The results were dramatic, surprising the administrators: dynamic pricing caused a 13% drop in consumer peak demand. This great outcome thus encouraged distribution of even more smart electric meters in 2006.

    Now move forward to late summer 2009, when customers with smart meters saw their bills rise significantly in one month. Smart meters measure usage dynamically, allowing consumption to be tied to the varying price of electricity in "real time." Some customers' bills peaked very high, as much as 100, 200, or even 400 percent of normal.

    In November, a class action lawsuit was launched against Pacific Gas & Electric. Customer’s blamed the unbelievable rate increases on faulty equipment; however, the California Public Utilities Commission hired consultants who proved otherwise. It was determined that the smart electric meters were indeed doing their job as intended. The meters just adjusted their measurements depending on usage during certain periods of the day, and the public was not prepared for such fine-grained tracking and billing.

    It was in July when the complaints kept soaring in. It was an inordinately hotter summer than in previous years. The smart meters observed and recorded, minute by minute, adjusting accordingly. They did their job; it was just a much hotter month than previously experienced.

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    Smart Meter Data Transfer Methods

    There are at least two methods involved in smart meters communicating with their utility. One is power-line networking, which uses the power company's actual wiring as the transmission medium. The other technique involves cell-phone-like radio frequency-based meters, which are the type used by PG&E.

    Customers in California were also concerned about health issues involving exposure to these meters, but a report from the Electric Power and Research Institute stated that it does not cause excessive RF exposure during regular operation. Nevertheless, customers were given the option to not participate in the smart meter program. One presumes that not many of them elected to stop using their cell phones.

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    Smart Meter Data: Access and Privacy Rights

    What about existing privacy regulations?

    In some instances, it has been stated there is no need to provide new regulations for smart meter data specifically. 46 state governments have an existing law in place that requires businesses to have a method of locating and protecting their own data in general. Current privacy laws regarding data security are enough to include smart meter data as well, proponents say, and no new laws are necessary. According to this line of thought, new regulations would just be reinventing the wheel. But are these laws regulating the businesses or utility companies that actually store this data?

    Who owns the data?

    Who owns the usage data recorded by a smart meter? If not the end user (the customer), then does the client even have a right to access the data, in real time, the same way the power company bills for it?

    It does seem that legal precedence suggests that the utility facilities own the data, but policies are being pushed to define customer rights in this manner. Both California and Texas already took the extra step to protect smart meter data and established consumer privacy rights on their end. Even though the utility companies are in control of the data, at least these states have set up policies to protect it.

    Texas passed a law that would allow only customers to have access and own data from Texas smart meters which are delivered to them by their utility provider. This is under Texas Utilities Code 39.107(b).

    Should consumers worry about intrusive marketing?

    What if the utility company decides to sell access to detailed billing records to marketers? For example, if the marketing department of a pharmaceutical organization can observe what residences get up late at night due to insomnia and by gauging that by their use of electricity during that time of the evening, could you imagine the inexpensive, untapped advertising opportunity to promote their sleep aids? Or perhaps appliance companies will notice that you’re using a certain appliance more often than usual, and will use that data to send you advertisements on an energy saving appliance of their own? (Perhaps the ads will even appear in the monthly utility bill.)

    This seems to be akin to one’s address being sold to companies and creditors so they can solicit pre-approved credit card offers. Do we need any more junk mail?

    Texas Smart Meter Web Portal

    As previously mentioned, the State of Texas has given customers the rights to the real-time data from their smart meters online. This is known as the "Smart Meter Texas Web Portal."

    After about a two-month period after installation and testing of a residential smart meter, Texas customers are able to access their electrical usage history in 13-month, 30-day, or 24-hour snapshots as well as in 15 minutes intervals throughout the day. This way, someone can say to themselves, "Holy cow, I left my outdoor spotlight on overnight last night!" This makes a user more conscious of what appliances they're using in order to better manage their appliances.

    That being said, there are wheels in motion with this smart electric meter web interface/website to allow access to customer usage information by retail electric providers which thus can offer up energy analysis utilities, time of use rates, and pre-paid services. This portal can also allow these retail electric providers to gain access to home area network devices that can tap into the smart meters, which can then be used by consumers to better manage their appliance usage by letting them remotely gain access to future connected electric appliances, thermostats, and other smart electric devices that are currently in development among manufacturers.

    Google has an API for such access as well. The "Google Powermeter" is a portal itself that allows users to gain access to their usage data from any participating utility company.