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Midwestern meters, Colorado privacy and thou

At the risk of getting stuck on a subject or giving voice to the irrational, it is important for the power industry to recognize how its grid modernization plans could be derailed. 

In any argument, allowing an opponent to dictate the terms of debate is disadvantageous. Utilities must build credible coalitions among society's stakeholders; stakeholders who are educated, scientifically literate and free of atavistic tendencies. When citizens see that sources such as university professors, doctors, attorneys, policemen, firemen, chamber of commerce executives and civic groups all understand and favor grid modernization steps that include interval meters, that will counteract the shrill noise propogated by the few. Credible concerns indeed include data privacy and security and cost. Business cases should be transparent to provide clear return on investment. If that cannot be shown, don't pursue the project.  

We've recently covered two issues—an effort to implement advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) in Naperville, Ill., and the articulation of AMI-related privacy policies in Colorado—that evolve day-by-day. Thus, an update.

In last week's "Naperville's Meters and Their Foes," I discussed "a small city with one of the most thoughtful, transparent grid modernization efforts in the country [that is dealing with] vociferous objections from a tiny minority." Suffice to say that those objections have morphed from "smart" meters' purported health impacts to privacy concerns to property rights. 

Among Naperville's 140,000 residents, fewer than 200 have signed up for the municipal utility's option for a non-wireless meter, while a handful have vowed to block access to their property to implement that option. (We documented Naperville's 20-year history of transparent, customer-citizen-oriented grid improvements in "Smart Grid in the Heartland.") And a group calling itself Naperville Smart Meter Awareness has filed a petition with about 4,200 signatures to place a non-binding resolution on the March 2012 primary ballot suggesting that the city "immediately and permanently stop the implementation of the $22 million smart meter project and dismantle all related equipment." (Petitioners acknowledged that many signers had not heard of the project.)

Last night, Naperville held an open house to further educate its citizens. And a decision by the city clerk is due soon on whether the question on stopping the AMI project will appear on the March ballot.

Meanwhile, two letters appeared in the local Naperville Patch.

"The city council and management are infringing on our property rights," wrote SmartGridAmbassadorOfTruth. "What right do they have to force us to host their data networking equipment? If we say no to having their wireless networking equipment they are trying to extort money in the way of a wireless workaround. Tell these jack-booted Nazis to stay away from our homes."

"The simple solution is to stop using city-provided electricity," replied Jim Smith. "You aren't hosting their data networking equipment. Their meters communicate usage data back to the city for billing purposes. That's not generic data networking and it's LESS intrusive than having a person WALK onto your property every month or two to take readings. That meter reader could look in your windows and see a LOT more personal stuff than the company will get from knowing you used so many kWh of power at 9 a.m."

Actually, my opening point must be amended. The Naperville case also demonstrates that exemplary outreach and transparency will not satisfy a tiny, antediluvian minority whose shifting positions and anti-science stance is immune to reason. Thus the corollary to outreach and transparency is the political question of how to preserve the right to dissent while moving ahead on grid modernization, the lifeblood of the economy.

Now to Colorado's policy on privacy for energy use data, which we wrote about earlier this week in "Colorado Mulls Data Privacy Rule." (You can find all related documents on the Colorado Public Utility Commission's e-filing system. The proceeding number is 10R-799E.) The column discussed a request by Public Service Company of Colorado, Xcel Energy's local subsidiary, to the Colorado PUC to clarify the definition of "standard customer data" to include the qualifier that the term refer to customer data that is actively maintained. Periodic archiving of customer energy use data means that it would be expensive and time-consuming to force a utility to make all historic data available upon request and, this week, the Colorado PUC agreed.

The decision simply reflected a rational regulatory process that had already rejected a number of other utility requests. Those other requests included an Xcel proposal that fines for violations of the policy cover aggregate violations in a single breach, rather than one fine per violation. That is, Xcel argued that a single, $2,000 fine cover, say, a hundred violations in one breach , while the Colorado PUC held fast that such a scenario would result in a $200,000 fine.

In this instance, the Colorado PUC is to be commended for sticking to its role as defender of consumers' best interests.  

Phil Carson
Intelligent Utility Daily






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