Can Smart Meters Use Data for Good?
Social media companies, other websites and large corporations farm our data to sell us things. But can smart meter data every be used for good?
Data and You
So often you end up on the wrong side of data collection.
It’s a tired story already. Social media companies, other websites and large corporations farm our data to sell us things. We lack the resources to curb such behavior so, by the end of it, we’re their products as much as we are their consumers.
It’s easy to forget, in this proto-dystopia, that data can be a great thing--that on its own it’s not harmful at all, and in the right hands can be used to spread good in the world.
This article is about a largely innocuous connected technology with the power to benefit you, and society on the whole. It’s a technology you may already have in your home, even if you’ve never given it a second thought.
Origin of the Smart Meter
Ever since the advent of electricity and gas grids, utility companies have charged individual homeowners according to their resource consumption. For the majority of history, and still today, the meters which monitored this consumption were simple: they tracked total usage, and that’s it. If you used 900 kWh of electricity in one month, that’s what your meter reflected. The electricity company would come check your meter every so often, and bill according to the number it displayed.
This system was perfectly fine, of course, but it was limiting. It took awhile for anyone to realize.
In 1972, an engineer at Boeing invented a mechanism for digitally monitoring alarm systems: fire alarms, security alarms and the like. The tech also happened to work for utility meters. So, by happenstance, the world was given a means to remotely track energy consumption. Call it a “smart meter.”
The real benefit of remote monitoring wasn’t so much that it was remote, but that it was continuous. Digitally-connected meters stream data to a command hub, where usage can be tracked 24/7. With this new layer of data, utility companies could track not just total usage but usage patterns--not just how much, but how much at any given time.
Benefits of Connected Meters
Time is important data because the grid is not an infinite resource. It takes serious infrastructure, and continuous work to provide electricity and gas to homes and cities. Financial costs aside, there are environmental costs to keeping the grid moving. Fossil fuels are being burned every moment of the day to ensure all of us can keep the lights on.
When utilities have reliable usage data on more precise timescales, they can predict how much consumption will occur in the future. For instance, say a city that uses an average of X mWh of electricity on sunny days and X + Y mWh on cloudy days. The utility company that knows this can scale according to the weather on any given day. This, on its own, is a minor benefit. But what if we applied the same logic to renewable energies?
The number one problem with solar and wind power has always been reliability. Because they’re based on weather, they’re subject to swings between periods of excess and scarcity, and batteries can only go so far to level things out. Combining weather forecasts with consumption data, however, makes these technologies more viable. Suddenly you can anticipate how much energy will be needed, when, and straddle resources accordingly. The weather doesn’t change, but our reliance on it decreases nonetheless.
Smart metering can be beneficial in all kinds of smaller ways, too. It can provide better data to not just utilities but also their consumers. It can help predict and diagnose power failures at a distance, and limit how often a specialist has to visit individual homes for readings. It can even support the adoption of electric vehicles by informing where new charging stations should be located (find where people tend to need juice, and build there).
As with any technology, connected meters offer the potential for misuse. Some of the criticism leveled against them is unfounded, but a lot of it is legitimate.
When the U.K. government pushed for nationwide smart metering in 2010, one security engineer and Cambridge University professor published a critical analysis. Among other things, he argued that even if this technology has the potential to benefit society, history suggests it won’t. Or, rather, that its stewards aren’t motivated by societal good.
“[T]he proposed architecture ensures continued dominance of metering by energy industry incumbents whose financial interests are in selling more energy rather than less.”
Utility companies, like all companies, are motivated by profit, whether it be to the benefit or expense of society at large. If it’s in their financial interest to sell more watts, why would they use smart meters to sell fewer? And if burning fossil fuels is cheaper than running solar and wind farms, why would they use smart meters to incorporate sustainable energies into the grid?
Perhaps this view is cynical, but it’s worth considering. And it’s not the only potential issue one could imagine.
When usage data is streamed in real-time, from individual homes, it allows the utility to create a more efficient grid for everyone. But energy usage is a form of personal data. A utility company can use smart meter data to better identify homes at risk of fuel poverty, then work with local authorities to help people before they reach a crisis point. Alternatively, the same company can use the same information to target customers at risk of falling behind on payments.
The Future of Smart Meters
With the power for smart meters to do good or bad for society, some organizations today are working to tip the scales in the right direction.
New Zealand-based Power Ledger is a small operation, but their unique approach to energy savings is on the cutting edge. Using decentralized ledger technology, they’ve created an open energy market where homeowners with connected meters use a native cryptocurrency (called “Sparkz”) to buy and sell electricity. It’s unintuitive at first, but the benefits are numerous. The system organically incentivizes homeowners to build solar panels that generate excess energy they can then turn for a profit. Those in need can always buy, and know that what they’re buying is green. In total, the grid becomes both more efficient and less reliant on fossil fuels, thereby reducing carbon emissions on two fronts.
Power Ledger is probably too futuristic to become widespread any time soon, but more incremental change can help in the meantime. Recently, the Open Data Initiative (ODI) partnered with Smart DCC on a “Data for Good” campaign. Data for Good is proposing a free and open data exchange “to ensure we can freely share (or provide at cost) system data, securely and in the right way.” In other words, utilizing the benefits of smart meter data without exposing consumers or the environment to unnecessary risk. The goals for this platform include:
According to DCC’s CEO:
We believe that this approach – combined with innovative licensing models – can maximise access to data securely, free of charge or at cost, but not for profit wherever possible. This contemporary approach would enable diverse innovation, allowing new ideas to grow from everywhere, not just companies that can afford to access it.
Let’s hope projects like these turn out well. Hundreds of millions of homes around the world already have smart meters installed, and the number is only growing. That means there’s a lot of room for this technology to do good, or harm.
It’s remarkable, when you think about it. For such an innocuous device...who would’ve thought?