Yesterday I joined a panel at the New England Conference of Public Utilities Commissioners. I was the odd man out in the group but that was the point. The organizers wanted somebody other than the Usual Suspects to bring an outside perspective to the panel. Here’s roughly what I said.
My phone bill is itemized down to the last minute and second — every call, every number. For the longest time I’ve wanted my electric bill to be itemized in the same way, right down to the watts actually used by every appliance.
How can you decide whether to replace your old fridge if you don’t know what it really costs to run it? Or how guilty should you feel, or not feel, about turning on the air conditioner in June, if you don’t have the data?
Well I’ve finally got the data, at least sort of, thanks to the smartmeter I installed recently. It’s a first-generation device; it’s a little flaky; it doesn’t track individual appliances. But it does give me realtime feedback about how many watts my house is burning.
That’s a really interesting number. When you turn off some lights, you see the difference right away, in watts and in pennies per hour. It’s a powerful behavior changer.
Around the time I was installing this thing I heard a commentary on NPR about smartmeters, The title of the piece was “Smart Meter, Big Brother,” and you can guess what it was about. Smartmeters are an unpredictable new technology, they bring unforeseen privacy risks that none of our statutes and regulations have ever thought about.
What was the guy worried about? Well, suppose you come home every night around the time the bars close. The electric company can tell because it sees your lights and appliances come on. Then somehow it leaks that data to your insurance company, which raises your premiums.
Really? I don’t know, to me there’s nothing new here. Most people I talk to have given up on privacy. They just expect that’s what would happen with your data.
Here’s what would be a new twist. Why do we just assume that a smartmeter will automatically phone its data home to the electric company? Mine doesn’t. It only feeds data to my own home computer, and from there to wherever I route it. PSNH doesn’t know anything about this. [ed: Well, I guess they do now :-)]
This reminds me of what we’ve been seeing in IT for quite a while. Consumer technologies at the edge of the network have disrupted enterprise technologies at the core, Telecom feels this disruption intensely right now. I’m wondering if other utilities, like power, will start to feel it too.
I know a guy who runs a company that does demand management for big box retailers like Michaels and Petco. He drops a package of instrumentation and controls into your store, he connects it to the web, and then when there’s a rolling brownout in California he can dial down the lights and ventilation and AC in all the buildings across his network.
He picked the retail sector because every one of those stores has the energy footprint of 20 or 30 homes. And he avoided the residential sector because it’d be a lot harder to have the same kind of impact there.
But now I’m wondering if we’re going to start to see the crowdsourcing of demand management. I’ve already got a do-it-yourself Internet-connected smartmeter. How much longer until I can add DIY controls to dim the lights or schedule the dishwasher to run off peak? And then how much longer before I can connect up with a bunch of other people who want to do the same things?
I’m not saying this will happen. But it could. And if it did, we wouldn’t need to wait for legislators and regulators to figure out how to deal with some new privacy threat, because there wouldn’t be a threat. It would just be people choosing to share their data with other people in order to conserve energy. And, by the way, they’d be having a lot of fun doing it too! Think massively multiplayer online game for the smart grid.
Now maybe I’ve told the wrong crowd about my DIY smartmeter. Maybe I’ve already broken some rule I don’t know about. But if not, or in any case, I’d like to put this crazy idea onto the table for discussion.
For me it was a chance to hang out with a bunch of public utility regulators and watch them wrestle with thorny issues. Does regulation often stifle innovation? Yes. Is regulation a means to socially just ends, like rural broadband? Yes. I found it fascinating.
Also, I got to spend an evening and a morning at the fabulous Mount Washington hotel during a perfect New Hampshire solstice.