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Independence Day: It's complicated


I'd been thinking about Independence Day on Tuesday when an email popped into my in-box from the general manager of a rural cooperative utility.

What to do about psychotic narcissists such as Glenn Beck, who's spewing paranoid fantasies about "Agenda 21," the latest focus of fear since Commies were hiding under your bed? Beck was mentioned because he's doing his level best to tie smart meters to a pernicious, United Nations.-driven effort to control your mind, your behavior, your home, the entire world, etc., etc.

On the one hand, the good old U.N. is consistently derided as an ineffectual institution that nonetheless manages to dangerously impede U.S. sovereignty and has an agenda to control (fill in the blank with your worst fear). Apparently, power utilities are in cahoots with this effort and have sent their agents to attach meters on your home to assist in gathering data about your lifestyle. 

That's an expensive and time-consuming way to go about gathering information that the U.N. bureaucrats can use against you, when it'd be cheaper and quicker just to go to your bank, grocery store, gas station or Internet provider for more damning information. 

But the central question is a dang good question and we've kicked this around before. See the last discussion we had when I offered up quotes from a citizen penned op-ed piece in the column, "Meters = Surveillance?"  

First, let's acknowledge that the granularity of data from interval meters can produce appliance-specific data and that needs to remain unexploited. Second, the behavioral patterns revealed by smart meter data needs to be disconnected from the individual who creates it. Unless, of course, the owner of the data (that's the customer) authorizes its release to a third party because that party has a value proposition that the customer decides outweighs the privacy risks. 

Much of the current dilemma (what to do about demagoguery) also stems from the issue of trust. While cooperatives and municipal utilities by and large have the trust of their constituents, investor-owned utilities don't, and for good reason. IOUs tend to favor their investors over their ratepayers, simple as that. So in the eyes of the customer, the IOU speaks with forked tongue. 

Is that always true? Is that fair? No and not necessarily. However, we're in that swampy region known as "perception" and perceptions matter. So, IOUs tend to enter the game with a deficit. Further, one of the pillars of trust is transparency and, for many reasons, including competitiveness, IOUs cannot simply draw back the curtain on all their plans. So, mistrust can fester.

Further, consider that the vast majority of smart meter installations have not been followed by any substantive value propositions, apart from seeing your energy use on a Web portal. Dynamic pricing, rewards programs, etc. remain elusive. Even folks who trust their utility (and there are many in the silent majority) have no idea what's coming down the pike. Rumors and misinformation flourish in a vacuum. 

Thus I think the power industry has a substantive challenge on its hands; it's not just perception. AND it has a perception problem. Finally, we get to the topic we began with, as the power industry also has a nut-job challenge on its hands.

In the recent column cited above, our readers weighed in on the psychology of dealing with the more off-the-wall craziness. To connect the dots, the fact that there is an underlying, legitimate nugget of concern (meters can record granular data betraying occupant behavior and the resulting concerns over data privacy) means the crazies can't be dismissed out of hand. Add to that the nascent craziness over dynamic pricing and all of a sudden you're swimming against the tide.

My only prescription is simple. Total transparency. If a utility has figured out how it's going to use smart meters to offer value, it should say so. If it hasn't, it should say so. I realize that's about as likely as Glenn Beck shutting up. So the other option is for a utility to spell out clearly how it's approaching data privacy, exactly what smart meters do for grid efficiencies and the range of options under consideration for delivering direct customer value.

If a utility can't do one of those three things, it should turn off the lights and close the business.

Independence Day should mark the birth of a nation, but it should also stand for independent thinking.  

I might be right, but I could be wrong. Just in case, next time I take a shower, I'm going to crank up the microwave, just to throw "them" off.

Phil Carson
Intelligent Utility Daily



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