Editorial: Fear and Trembling and Electricity
May 1, 2010
There seems to be an epidemic of fear and trembling for which there is no cure or vaccine. Take, for example, a recent conversation with an elderly relative who was afraid of returning her census form for fear of what the government might do with the information. As tactfully as possible, I pointed out that, with the exception of her race, all of the requested information was already on numerous tax forms she had filed, and was already possessed by every bank, utility, and credit card issuer she’d ever dealt with. Furthermore, that solitary bit of information about her that was not already ubiquitously on file–her race–could be easily surmised from her Central European name. What exactly was she afraid of? I don’t know, she said. I just don’t trust them.
Such are the times in which we live. Which brings me to the subject of smart meters, smart appliances, and the privacy issue. There have been numerous articles and blogs expressing deep concern that two-way communications in the smart grid scenario would allow utilities to spy on people. It sounds ominous until you realize that the only thing a utility could possibly learn about you is when you use your appliances.
I can see where someone might be concerned about a utility observing the condition of their skivvies and telling the neighbors, but that would take an on-board laundry-cam, which, last time I checked, is not on the smart grid agenda. The only information to be gleaned by metering electricity usage on the washer would be frequency and time of use, from which little personal information can be inferred.
I can also understand that someone might be concerned about their utility knowing the contents of their refrigerator. But, again, that would take a fridge-cam, also not part of the program. In any event, if you use a shopper’s card at the grocery store, the contents of your refrigerator have already been deduced and recorded somewhere, including how much beer you drink and what brand.
And in terms of knowing what models of appliances you own and their age, that information went into a database the day you bought them. So why are people getting twitchy about protecting horses that have long since left the barn?
One perspiring writer on the subject said he feared that his utility would learn when he eats dinner and goes to bed. Well, let’s see, most people eat dinner around five or six and go to bed, you know, at night, so what’s the big secret there? Is he afraid the utility wants to break into his garage at night and steal his lawn mower? Another nervous Nellie revealed his true inner fear–marketers. He worried that the utility would figure out when he takes vacation and that prior to it he would be inundated with brochures from travel agencies. Another quaking soul referred to the potential of utility espionage as “an invitation to tragedy.” Maybe he was referring to the possibility of slipping on a travel brochure and breaking a hip.
That said, there are some legitimate security concerns that need to be addressed. The potential for someone to steal electricity without paying is a big one. And another is the possibility of hackers manipulating data so that their energy consumption gets billed to others. But perhaps the biggest worry is the threat of pranksters or saboteurs hacking into the system and shutting down the power for a house, a building, or even an entire city. The security system for any smart grid scenario must provide absolute safeguards against those possibilities.
For both sound and unsound reasons, people are wary of this new thing called the smart grid. Some recent polls suggest that only 30 percent of consumers would voluntarily participate in utility demand response programs. That number may go up or down, depending on how well utilities and the government address consumer fears, both real and imagined. As with the stock market, perception becomes reality. These days, you have to deal with both.