At the bird’s eye level, smart meters have the potential to revolutionize home energy use by providing better energy data, connecting with apps to use that data for new purposes, enabling a “home appliance network,” and ultimately facilitating energy efficiency and reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, these are complex systems (not tools) with many stakeholders, technologies, regulations, privacy issues, etc. all interacting.
Ann Arbor is part of DTE’s smart meter roll out, and this week I got my Itron meter.
Like any other home owner, I have lots of questions about these meters. After a little poking around on the web (and recalling some of my electrical engineering training), there seems to be a lot of confusion about these meters. So, I decided to summarize some of the knowns and unknowns in different categories.
1. Health Effects: Smart meters do emit radio frequency energy, but health concerns are lower relative to other devices such as smart phones based on what we currently know. This doesn’t mean there’s no risk, just that it’s lower than other devices that we use constantly. For a summary, see this report produced by the non-profit California Council on Science and Technology, which includes the following table (note the known unknown in the last row of the table).
2. Privacy: Anyone can buy products like wi spy, which scan radio frequency emissions using a USB port to a laptop and provide graphs of frequency and power. Real-time or cumulative energy usage data could in theory be used to determine when someone is on vacation. I’ve seen some interesting examples of this online, but several key things remain unknown. First, it’s not clear whether a given smart meter implementation incorporates secure communication channels. If so, it would be as safe as doing online banking (pretty safe). Second, it’s not clear whether the serial number or house address are included in the communication data. Could a thief match a serial number to a home location easily? If not, risk would be much lower. Beyond the burglary angle, suppose I have a “smart washer and dryer” that talk to my smart meter every 15 minutes. It is not clear whether “when I wash my clothing” is considered private. Can and will DTE use this data to, for example, sell to marketing partners? This is not clear.
3. Consumer Benefits: As a home owner, I’d like to access granular data on my laptop and iPhone. I couldn’t find anything on the DTE web site about how I can or will be able to do this. And no mention of connecting with Zigbee-enabled smart appliances, two-way communication with DTE, and other touted smart meter benefits. My online DTE web page is the same as it always was, providing graphs of monthly usage data, etc. So, as far as I’m concerned, it’s not clear when if ever I will get some major benefits out of this. According to DTE, the benefits are not compelling:
The bottom line: The kind folks at DTE have done the equivalent of telling all Ann Arbor residents to use a new smart phone but haven’t provided us with any apps or road maps for app development. Memo to DTE: when you make it fun and accessible on iPhones/iPads and help us to lower our bills, you’ll make us happy.