Smart meters get political; are they a breach of privacy?

California utility PG&E is facing opposition over wireless smart meters -- but this time it's political. Does the smart grid threaten privacy and personal health?
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

Pacific Gas and Electric just can't catch a break.

The utility, among the first large companies to roll out wireless smart meters to its customers in northern California (and among the first beset with problems after people reported higher electricity bills), is now "facing fierce opposition" from a new group of folks: political extremists concerned about privacy.

Felicity Barringer writes in the New York Times that right-wing conservatives and left-wing individualists are fighting back against the lowly, maligned smart meter, which transmits real-time data on customers' electricity usage to the utility.

There are more than seven million smart meters in California. But protesters are drumming up outrage, seeking to block delivery of the devices and pushing to entirely ban them in certain rural areas.

Barringer reports:

The new wave of protests comes from conservatives and individualists who view the monitoring of home appliances as a breach of privacy, as well as from a cadre of environmental health campaigners who see the meters’ radio-frequency radiation — like emissions from cellphones and other common devices — as a health threat.


The health concerns about the smart meters focus on the phenomenon known as “electromagnetic hypersensitivity,” or E.H.S., in which people claim that radiation from cellphones, WiFi systems or smart meters causes them to suffer dizziness, fatigue, headaches, sleeplessness or heart palpitations.

Recent government reviews have failed to establish a link between health issues and common levels of electromagnetic radiation.

Proponents of smart meters say protests are hindering inevitable and necessary technological progress.

Opponents of the meters say the meters are degrading personal freedoms and risk health complications, the latter of which is at a "he said, she said" stage.

At the high level, the meters are the first step in a greener "smart grid" -- a power grid that enjoys greater efficiency by using granular data to reveal usage patterns.

For utility companies, the data allows them to better prepare for -- and avoid -- spikes.

For customers, the data eventually allows them to curtail their own usage. Core to both outcomes is incentivization via time-of-day pricing, for which high usage times demand higher rates, and vice-versa.

But like popular social network Facebook, the granularity of the data is provoking concerns about personal privacy -- namely, that data that can drill down to usage statistics for individual appliances, such as your refrigerator.

Utilities say they've always collected usage data, and their confidentiality practices don't change despite more detailed data.

What do you think: are smart meters a breach of privacy? And if so, what's more important: your privacy, or a more intelligent infrastructure?

Update: Barringer reflects on her story's sources on NYT's Green blog: "How, in a rational society, does one understand those who reject science, a common touchstone of what is real and verifiable?"

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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