Since 2012, utilities in the United States have set up more than 43 million Advanced Meter Installations (AMI), aka "smart meters" in homes and businesses, and more such meters are being installed every day. Why smart meters? What can they do and not do? Do they threaten your privacy? Do they give others control over how you use electricity? Let's find out.
How Smart Meter Data IS Used
Smart meters are two-way devices that measure customer electricity usage frequently, usually every 15 minutes. This allows your electric utility to get data about your electricity use without having to send a meter reader to your site. And, smart meters allow YOU to track how much electricity you're using.
Most utilities that install smart meters offer Web portals where you can go and see how much electricity you're using and when, and what your tab is at any time (just like your bank or credit card statements online). You can use smart meter data to make more informed choices about your electricity use and bring your bills down. If you like, you can even share your data with third parties who can help you figure out how to save energy and dollars.
Smart meters help your utility offer better service to you. They help your utility measure real-time load and better balance loads to avoid blackouts. Smart meters also help your utility respond more quickly to outages. Your utility does not have to wait until someone calls to report an outage but is notified right away by the smart meter itself and can quickly deploy technicians to the affected outage area and restore power quickly. The meters can also tell the utility if an outage is system-wide or at a particular site.
Traditionally, your electricity use is billed at a flat rate, no matter when you use it. However, the price of the electricity your utility gets on the wholesale market is greatly affected by time and weather. And by gauging when you use power through your smart meter, your utility can set different rates for different times of the day and let you leverage the lower rates for waiting until off-peak periods for heavier electricity use.
So you can be rewarded for using less power in the middle of a hot summer day when demand peaks and for running your washer/dryer at night when the demand is lower.
Smart meters, combined with flexible rates, allow you to use electricity when it is cheaper, saving you money and helping you save the environment, too.
How Smart Meter Data is NOT Used
A common concern is that utilities will be able to see what you're using electricity for at any given time and be able to control your use. The reality is that utilities cannot tell what appliances are in use by looking at the data from your smart meter every 15 minutes. The only way anyone can determine specific usage is if YOU choose to install smart appliances or special monitoring devices that measure certain appliances, like your washer/dryer. Even if you choose to install such appliances or devices, you can opt to not share this data with your utility.
Can your utility share data from your smart meter with third parties? Not typically. In most cases, utilities cannot share your data with unaffiliated third parties unless you provide clear consent. Sometimes, your utility may tell you that they will share data unless you opt out. Bottom line, you can stop your utility from sharing your data without your approval.
State utility commissions and other government entities have developed smart meter data privacy guidelines to ensure that your data remains protected. These regulations also provide guidelines on how you may access your data, revoke consent to data sharing, dispute your bills, and more.
The Public Power Commitment to Privacy
Public power utilities are already committed to meeting customer needs and respecting their preferences.
Naperville, Illinois, was one of the first communities to deploy smart meters across its service territory, and its "Naperville Smart Grid Customer Bill of Rights," is considered a "revolutionary document" for its focus on customer rights.
The American Public Power Association (APPA) has been involved in developing an industry-wide Voluntary Code of Conduct since 2012. The draft VCC emphasizes core privacy principles and outlines concepts for power providers and third parties to secure customer data. A summary of the key privacy protections established by the industry can be found in the APPA whitepaper, Smart Grid Data Privacy Concerns: An Overview of Recommended Guidelines."