Monday, April 1, 2013

Smart Meters and the Fourth Amendment

By Patty Durand, executive director, SGCC

I attended GreenTech Media’s Networked Grid event on March 20-21, northwest of Los Angeles, where an incident occurred that may require the power industry’s attention. (Of course, the conference overall was informative and constructive.)

At an evening reception on March 19, I chatted with a woman who asked me about health and safety risks from smart meters and cited the Fourth Amendment in the Bill of Rights, which guards against unreasonable search and seizure.

I responded that smart meters are safe and not instruments of privacy invasion. I offered her
an SGCC fact sheet on the matter; she declined.

(The link above is to an SGCC smart grid FAQ. The SGCC also offers fact sheets on
consumer benefits, data privacy, smart meters and radio frequency emissions.)

The next day, I recognized this woman among a handful of protestors who apparently registered for the event as students and who proceeded to disrupt a panel on scaling intelligent distribution grids. The protestors shouted loudly about “bias,” “safety” and “forcing people out of their homes,” according to my notes. They were escorted from the room. Outside the venue, perhaps 30-40 people were involved in a related protest march. I had experienced related activity last October at GridWeek 2012, where a radio frequency emissions expert and a data privacy expert were prepared to answer questions from anyone, including the protestors.

At the risk of providing a platform for people who charge, without evidence, that smart meters are dangerous to human health or the instrument of Big Brother, I wonder whether the power industry is doing enough to counter these falsehoods. While I understand the desire to avoid undue controversy by raising the issue or by paying attention to people who seem impervious to factual information, research conducted by the SGCC would appear to underscore the alternative risks of remaining silent.

Our research shows that fully half the American public has never heard of “smart meters” or “smart grid.” In fact, the general public’s perceptions on these topics are a blank slate. The good news is that when people are informed about the implications of grid modernization for greater energy efficiency, reduced frequency and duration of outages and home energy management, they tend to be receptive and positive.

While many if not most utilities that are deploying smart meters or adding intelligence to their grids provide solid information on a Web site and/or make aggressive outreach efforts to educate  their customers, much of what reaches local, even national headlines are the wild claims of opponents.

In short, that blank slate is getting plastered with graffiti and my question is whether the power industry as a whole needs to step up its game in this regard and/or put forth national spokespeople who can provide solid, factual information to compete with the baseless negativity.

Certainly there are legitimate questions from decent people simply seeking reassurances that smart meters and smarter grids are safe and provide value. Data privacy and security are bona fide concerns, as are questions about who pays, why and what value can be expected as a result.

For its part, the SGCC has posted a
“Myth Busting” video on YouTube for industry stakeholders to use – it’s not just up to the utilities alone to inform the public. We’ll soon post a “Pricing Plan” fact sheet on the SGCC website to give stakeholders a sense of how to manage and benefit under a dynamic pricing offering. 

As the SGCC’s executive director, I’m taking this message far and wide this year. My next speaking engagement will be tomorrow at the Smart Grid Road Show on April 2-3 in Scottsdale, AZ, on the topic, “Understanding Consumer Awareness of Smart Grid.”

I welcome your thoughts on today’s thesis and how best to provide factual information to a public that remains largely unaware, but potentially susceptible to misinformation.  

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