Smart Grids could be used to support the introduction of dynamic competition and customer choice into electrical markets. Embracing open standards and streamlining burdensome regulations are a route to that outcome.
However, even an open, transparent market for electricity will not address concerns about the potential for the technology to erode personal privacy. Without effective regulation, some quite troubling possibilities do exist.
But others see a darker side. Utility companies, by gathering hundreds of billions of data points about us, could reconstruct much of our daily lives — when we wake up, when we go home, when we go on vacation, perhaps even when we draw a hot bath. They might sell this information to marketing companies — perhaps a travel agency will send brochures right when the family vacation is about to arrive. Law enforcement officials might use this information against us (“Where were you last night? Home watching TV? That’s not what the power company says … ”). Divorce lawyers could subpoena the data (“You say you’re a good parent, but your children are forced to sleep in 61-degree rooms. For shame …”). A credit bureau or insurance company could penalize you because your energy use patterns are similar to those of other troublesome consumers. Or criminals could spy the data, then plan home burglaries with fine-tuned accuracy.
This is one issue where intelligent public policy and regulations need to be developed. A laissez faire approach is not appropriate. While it is not a trivial challenge, it is not unprecedented.
For example, telecom companies have collected detailed calling records of their customer’s use of the network. Intelligent regulations require those companies to keep that information secure and private and to only collect the amount of information required to support metering and billing systems. There is no reason why a person’s usage of a Smart Electrical network cannot be kept as private and secure of their communication activities on telephone, cellular or Internet services.
Is protecting privacy a concern that needs to be address with Smart Grids. The obvious answer is yes. We need to challenge our governments and their regulators to ensure that Smart Grids evolve in a manner that protects personal privacy and increases consumer power and choice in the market. The deployment of the Smart Grid systems like the ultimate market it is possible to create needs to be done in a open, transparent and thoughtful manner.