A Bretton Woods solstice

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.

4 Comments

  1. I have lots of other thoughts about your post, but will stick to one point here. I think an interesting thing about your TED “smart meter” versus the smart meters the utilities are installing comes down to who owns the data. Here in California there is a proceeding on this very issue (although they don’t couch it as ownership, per-se). Some of the California utilities are hedging on how the consumer will get access to that data. I don’t want to wait for my utility to eventually see the light, so I purchased a TED.

    TED reminds me of the AttentionTrust Attention Recorder. Regardless of the outcome of the ownership question, the user asserts their ownership by just capturing it themselves. One big difference, though, is that there are real questions about which providers also get access to this kind of data, and more importantly, who they can share it with. It is one thing for Yahoo to use my click stream on their site to their own advantage, and to sell it too based on some TOS. It is another thing altogether for my regulated utility to provide my energy data to 3rd parties. Of course, we also have non-utilities (thankfully) in the mix that are providing devices that bypass the utility altogether. TED is almost one of these, TED+Google Energy definitely is.

  2. comes down to who owns the data.

    Exactly.

    I can imagine that, even if my utility offered me its own smartmeter, and even if it promised me access to the data, I might still have reason to use a TED in parallel. And at a device cost of one or two orders of magnitude less, others in corresponding proportions might chose the same. Reasons why:

    1. So you can independently verify your usage and billing.

    2. So you can avail yourself of potentially more/different/better modes of access to and use of your data.

    In that scenario PSNH would have the data for its planning, analysis, and ultimately demand management purposes, and I might be OK with them having it those reasons. But I’d have it too, and ideally (yeah, I know, in my dreams) the demand management services offered by PSNH could coexist with grassroots/social demand management — spurring both to evolve faster and get better.

    Interesting variant scenario: I am not happy for them to have all the data, but I am willing to syndicate some of mine to them — enough for them to do the kinds of analysis and planning that they convince me they need to.

  3. Here’s the problem with letting the Utility track this:

    http://news.cnet.com/8301-31921_3-20015743-281.html

    “the Obama administration has argued that warrantless tracking is permissible because Americans enjoy no “reasonable expectation of privacy” in their–or at least their cell phones’–whereabouts. U.S. Department of Justice lawyers have said that “a customer’s Fourth Amendment rights are not violated when the phone company reveals to the government its own records” that show where a mobile device placed and received calls.”

    This follows the ruling on banking records (United States v. Miller), wherein the Supreme Court decided that because banks were party to transactions, individual citizens’ financial records, these records were fair game for warrantless searches. Because the Utility is party to the creation of the records, there is *no* privacy implications or concern.

    On the other hand, if *you* collect the data, you can use it as you wish, it has full privacy records, and you can voluntarily enter into contracts with third parties tha maintain that privacy.

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