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Meter data analytics: a primer for talking to customers

Anybody who knows anything about the reams and reams of data an electric utility now collects from intelligent devices on the grid, and uses to keep electricity flowing reliably at best cost available, would find what I listened to last night stunning.

And I don't mean that in a positive way.

I settled in to listen to a nearly two-hour conference call/webcast posted in late April on a website I have been watching this year. Titled "Smart Meters Conference Call: Privacy & Health KEY INFO.," the call was led by Glen Chase, who has served in the past as a professor in California, teaching systems management.

I broach this subject knowing I'm going to get e-mail tomorrow, and it'll likely read like one I received last week, after one of the groups fighting wireless two-way communicating meters sent my July 12 column, "The 'last mile' of a smarter grid,' out to its entire newsletter mailing list. In that column, I advocated, again, that utilities do everything they can to educate and engage consumers, because the anti-folks sure are, and a lot of it isn't supported by fact.

"Your arrogance and total disregard for human safety is breath-taking," I was told. "It confirms you are part of the 'problem' - not the 'solution.' You should hang your head in shame."

Well, there's nothing like a little bit of name-calling to fuel my continued research and my Irish stubbornness. And that's what had me at my computer last night at midnight, listening to the on-demand conference call and taking careful notes. Careful, I say, because there's a lot to refute in what Chase had to say.

One of the first things he did was to point out, based on a document submitted to the Colorado Public Utilities Commission in 2009, that, in his words, "from the total smart meter data that the utility company receives, the software can recreate the individual devices that created that total ... What I am saying is, there are an infinite number of unique signatures possible. And since we have a very small, finite number of electrical devices that we use in our homes, it's very easy to distinguish one from the other.

"So the software can identify individual devices, so in fact, the utility company can identify 'It's the refrigerator, the ice maker, the defroster, a variety of medical devices, the TV channel ... different light bulb draws, toaster oven, certain devices of electricity that some people would think are very private and they wouldn't want other people to even know that they have in their houses,'" he continued. "They all have their unique signatures."

Lesson #1 for utilities from this conference call: You need to better explain to customers why you don't have the time, the budget, or the inclination to even want to do that. Seriously.

Lesson #2 for utilities: Start talking to your customers, in a very big way, about the issues we've been talking about in utility analytics conferences, workshops and webcasts: It's a lot of data, and we have very specific ways in which we need to use it in order to provide continued electricity reliability, faster outage restoration, and the ability to better optimize customer programs and pricing so that electricity costs stay as low as possible for customers. (My next column will discuss utility analytics more specifically, with SAS research on "How Utilities View Analytics" as its backbone.)

Chase went on to tell listeners that the California Public Utilities Commission has given Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) permission to its sell customer data, and suggested utilities are going to use the sale of customer meter data to make more money for themselves. He provided no documented proof of this comment (or many others, for that matter, couching some with "might" and "may"). So, I offer up, instead, PG&E's privacy policy, updated April 2, 2012, which states just the opposite. Readers can find its rules regarding privacy and security protections for energy usage data very clearly spelled out here.

Lesson #3 for utilities: It's imperative to fight allegations against your utility (especially when they're recorded) with fact (and with the law, when necessary), and to find a way to ensure the truth is disseminated as widely as the allegation has been. Learn to use social technologies as adeptly as your accusers. Find your influencers within your social channels, and make sure they've got the facts.

Chase said a lot more, but I don't have room in one column to refute it all. At the end of his presentation, he said, "These meters have been installed without communicating well to the public." In the light of the misinformation being propagated over the Internet, and in the seeming confusion in some states as to the reasons smart meters are being installed, I would have to agree with him, in some cases. Some utilities, however, have done their communications work very well, and have found high take-up by consumers.

And this brings me to Lesson #4: We need to get this part right. We need to be able to discuss privacy, and how the new data is being used, with consumers, because there are concerns being raised. And we need to do it now.

As always, I look forward to your suggestions, your comments and your e-mails.



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