Meters = surveillance?
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Despite tens of millions of Americans who have received and quietly accepted interval meters as a more modern and efficient way to measure their electricity use, with myriad promises of direct benefits that few have seen, vocal opponents continue to challenge the industry to explain itself.
As a column this past week revealed, even well-informed industry observers—our readers—are sympathetic to many of the most vociferous objections to interval meters and openly question whether industry claims of customer benefits will ever materialize.
So let's look at what readers had to say when apprised of a tirade by a citizen/op-ed writer in Gaston County, North Carolina, featured in "Crossroads 2012: Meters and the Future." This column featured excerpts from "Smart grid equals worse than dumb idea" is the title of an op-ed column appearing in the Gaston Gazette last week in Gaston County, North Carolina, by citizen Cheryl Pass.
First, who could argue with her lead: "When utility companies and government collaborate, the buyer better beware." However, that's the definition of how Americans get their electricity—a collaboration between utilities and government. Pass goes on to characterize climate science as "a lie," which is about as intelligent as calling it "a hoax." Both are adolescent fantasies that would wish away a difficult and complex conversation we must have.
But there's more: "The latest energy scam?" Pass wrote. "Smart meters." Pass goes on to promulgate actual lies: meters = "real-time surveillance by utilities and government," "health risks," "higher danger of home theft," (did she mean burglary?), "national security issues" and "personal energy use information sold to manufacturers."
Our readers' responses, in a nutshell: despite the over-the-top claims and tone, she has a point. But it's only one of six points (the others are demonstrable falsehoods): "no cost benefit to consumers."
"While I personally enjoy being able to see my electricity usage pattern so I can make adjustments, I am deeply concerned about the privacy issues related to smart meters and the potential control implications of individual smart meters," wrote the first reader to post on our forum. "I think many people severely underestimate the corrupting influence that the power to control others has on our political leadership."
Apparently, this reader buys the notion that "the government" will now control your use and peer into your home.
"Important topic and excellent example of an opposition comment that is akin to "death panels," wrote John Richter of AMI Analytics. "My only concern would be the worry that we consider most/all opposition to smart meters in this league. There is a risk that we underestimate and trivialize the opposition as merely the job of educating the ignorant.
"I think you've nailed the source of the problem with your simple line . . . `On the customer side, yes, utilities have been slow to follow meter swap-outs with clear value for the customer, but regulators are keeping up the pressure for them to do so.'
"As an industry, isn't that all we need to do: explain the value to the consumer?," Richter continued. "In my opinion, a strategy of rebutting these dubious appeals to conspiracy theories and radio waves will mean we've lost the war before we've fought the first battle. And we might win each battle on our way to a strategic defeat."
Another reader couched the privacy risks associated with smart meters in the context of the cost-benefit ratio.
"As the green button initiative expands and more apps are available to take customer data and provide additional customer benefits, we will see opposition fade away," wrote another reader. "As others have mentioned, many of us still use Facebook, the Internet, grocery store cards . all of which may provide bits and pieces of our lives to others which might at sometime be used inappropriately. The point is, we still use these services because the value is higher than the risk."
Another reader acknowledged that he's uneasy with utility motivations for smart metering.
"I have to agree with those who have commented thus far that Ms. Pass is perhaps a bit hyperbolic in her expression but does raise some valid concerns," wrote Rich Mignogna. "Utilities are consistently, unequivocally, their own worst enemy. [However], while data privacy concerns are real, I don't believe that it is all part of a larger scheme by Big Brother to control the masses.
"So, I wouldn't oppose a smart meter but am not convinced I need one either," Mignogna added. "Given my utility's predilection for burdening its ratepayers with anything it can get away with, I tend to be suspicious of motivations as well. All of which is moving me slowly away from the traditional regulatory model and into the camp of retail choice."
Our final forum post also falls into the "uneasy" over smart meters category.
"I concur with the first to respond," this correspondent wrote. "Utilities didn't and don't need the granularity of home-by-home monitoring for operations or restoration. There has yet to be a single, compelling case for residential benefits.
"So if the utility is able to effectively operate without residential smart meters and homeowner benefits are nil to I-don't-care, what's the point? If you take Ms. Pass's article as a bill-of-possibilities rather than a screed, it's hard not to wonder whether she might be onto something."
Frankly, my definition of "noise" fits here. Absurd falsehoods repeated loudly and often, with the effect of derailing rational discourse. If one repeats often enough that Big Brother is watching your dish washing habits, just maybe there's some truth to it. R-r-right?
While Richter has a point about not giving lunacy credence via rebuttal, I'd think that the power industry has an interest in providing factual information as an alternative to wild-eyed hyperbole. But I've been wrong before.
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