Smart meters — utility meters that provide detailed, real-time information on energy use — promise an easy way to bring down residential power consumption. They help consumers sniff out energy hogs and, by conveying data wirelessly, eliminate the need for armies of meter readers. But, great hopes — and $3 billion in stimulus money — aside, the meters have gotten off to a rocky start.
Last week in Texas, a state senator responding to consumer complaints about skyrocketing bills asked the Public Utility Commission to halt Oncor‘s installation of the devices. This week, the California PUC announced that it would investigate similar complaints about meters installed by Pacific Gas & Electric Co.. (Both utilities insist the bills stemmed from heavier usage, not the meters.)
Then San Francisco-based online privacy watchdog the Electronic Frontier Foundation seized the opportunity to send the PUC a laundry list of related privacy concerns. The group believes marketers and law enforcement agencies will pressure utilities to hand over smart meter data. The fears might sound unfounded, but EFF cites an example in which, even before smart meters, Texas police accessed a utility’s computers to search for residents whose power use suggested that they might be growing marijuana indoors.
With no guidelines on how smart meter data should be handled, it’s anyone’s guess how utilities will respond to the pressure to share it. And the companies don’t appear to have given it much thought. A recent study conducted by IDC Energy Insights suggests that utilities haven’t begun to consider how the new devices will change their customer interactions. For example, many smart meters allow residents to manage their energy use online, but 40 percent of companies surveyed by IDC didn’t even have customer-facing websites.
The meters will only be as smart as the companies that use them, and it looks like the utilities are facing a steep learning curve.