Privacy issues stall smart metering

One of the more interesting items that I saw on my morning trawl round the wires was a case where monitoring of energy usage is used to gather evidence against suspected marijuana growers. (How is it that marijuana growers keep popping up in my 'analog' blog I ask myself?) It seems that not only have such growers adopted all manner of high tech paraphernalia themselves; but US and Canadian law enforcement agencies have resorted to some sneaky, technology-centric methods of catching them.

The case in question involved growers in Alberta, Canada who were caught by police using a digital ammeter to glean evidence about the amount of electricity within their home. Though the data did indeed identify a 300+ plant operation, the judge dismissed the ammeter as a source of evidence for reasons of invasion of privacy – the police hadn't obtained the necessary search warrant to use it. Ammeters have apparently proven very successful at highlighting suspect electricity consumption patterns and therefore pinpointing grower operations. Placed on a power box off the property, they don't involve trespass, but used without the appropriate warrants, the data gathered is deemed a violation of the homeowner's privacy.

It is an interesting issue as precisely this reason has been given by some for resistance to smart metering in Europe. Notably, analyst firm Berg Insight (Gothenburg, Sweden) published a report in June 2009 predicting that the installed base of smart electricity meters in Europe will grow at a compound annual growth rate of 16.2 percent between 2008 and 2014 to reach 96.3 million. Though this represents a strong uptake of intelligent metering, putting the EU-wide target of 80 percent of households having smart meters by 2020 within reach, the report notes that some countries are moving ahead slower than others. For example, whilst Sweden has decided to make smart meters mandatory from July 2009, the Netherlands has postponed smart meter rollout following heated debate over the potential risk to privacy posed by remote energy monitoring. The report's author, Tobias Ryberg, suggested that 'the privacy threat from smart meters is grossly exaggerated' explaining that some people are opposed because it represents 'a new technology for collecting information in a time when large groups of people are afraid of the consequences of living in an information based society.' But that the case for smart metering is getting lost in debates about personal privacy seems to imply that their pros and cons aren't being communicated honestly.

The case for smart meters, in my opinion, hasn't been helped by the way that they have been 'sold' to consumers by Government and utility companies alike. Take one of the British government's latest initiatives to cut the country's carbon emissions, that every home in Britain will boast a smart meter by 2020. The theory goes that by encouraging the UK's 26 million households to track how much gas and electricity they use, more people will begin actively minimising their energy usage. However, the biggest winners from this initiative could be the energy companies, who are likely to save money by reading meters electronically, without having personnel out knocking on doors. And consumers aren't entirely unaware that the energy companies will want to guard their profits and their margins, and so are hardly incentivised by the cost and carbon-saving potential to end-customers. Talking of which, this initiative could cost between £7 billion and £9 billion, or £269 to £346 per household, and it isn't yet clear who will pay – if it's the consumer, any cost-savings per year are likely to be minimal. More worthwhile in the short to medium term are portable energy monitors that provide consumers with an understanding of the energy use of individual appliances within the home. These have been given out for free in the UK, though customers generally must meet a set of criteria first.

It is clear that both consumers and energy companies could benefit from the deployment of smart technology. But efforts to modernise the grid are going to have to become a whole lot more transparent before homeowners (including marijuana growers) trust energy companies to micro-manage their energy consumption. There is a risk that a veil of suspicion will always surround smart metering – which is a shame, because smart meters should one day play an integral role in a more sustainable energy grid.

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