June 25, 2010 / 11:16 AM / 7 years ago

Privacy concerns challenge smart grid rollout

CAMBRIDGE, England (Reuters Life!) - Wary homeowners could scupper the rollout of smart technologies meant to boost energy efficiency, without secure controls over data and access to appliances, executives said this week.

"Smart grid" technologies potentially allow utilities greater control over household energy use, helping smooth demand surges and curbing overall use.

Technologies center around home meters which display live energy use to consumers and allow two-way wireless communication with utilities, so these can forecast demand, charge more at peak times and even switch off individual appliances remotely.

Rollout is at an early stage, drawing comparisons with broadband internet a decade ago, but gathering pace. Britain, for example, plans a nationwide deployment, seeing energy security and carbon emissions benefits.

But the data-gathering power of meters has prompted comparisons with "spies" in people's homes.

"We, Siemens, have the technology to record it (energy consumption) every minute, second, microsecond, more or less live," said Martin Pollock of Siemens Energy, an arm of the German engineering giant, which provides metering services.

"From that we can infer how many people are in the house, what they do, whether they're upstairs, downstairs, do you have a dog, when do you habitually get up, when did you get up this morning, when do you have a shower: masses of private data."

"We think the regulator needs to send a strong signal to say that the data belongs to consumers and consumers alone. We believe that's a blocker to people adopting the technology," he told the Smart Grids and Cleanpower conference in Cambridge.

DISHWASHER

Supporters stress consumer benefits, for example to program individual appliances to switch on when power is cheaper, or when their roof-top solar panels are working.

The technology allows utilities to motivate customers to turn on washing machines or charge electric cars at night, for example, by charging more at peak times.

Proliferating service companies are focused on how to help consumers interact with meters.

"An ugly grey box which spies on you and makes bills bigger won't go down well but smart meters don't need to be seen in that light," said Pilgrim Beart, founder of AlertMe, which specializes in online displays.

Beart pointed to concerns in the Netherlands over data ownership and complaints in California following hiked bills.

AlertMe sells a web-based "hub" which downloads meter data online, displaying what it calls "actionable information" such as trends in energy use or the cost of your last clothes wash.

Another concern, however, is about potential mis-use of energy companies' new ability to switch off appliances remotely.

"There'll be a lot of resistance to being told by your utility when you can do your washing," said Chris Wright, chief technology officer at Moixa Technology.

Consumer agreements may focus on utilities controlling only particular appliances such as freezers, air conditioners or luxury items such as swimming pools.

In a U.S. pilot of behavior based on the extra information smart meters provide, householders were happy to change the time they used the microwave, but not washing machines, said GE Energy's Martin Ansell.

"The customer response was don't control when I can do the laundry and use the dishwasher," he said.

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