Saturday, October 10, 2009
WHAT WILL TALKING POWER METERS SAY ABOUT YOU?
Welcome to the complex world of the Smart Grid, which may very well pit environmental concerns against thorny privacy issues. If you think such debates are purely philosophical, you’re behind the times.
Maryland residents this month received fliers offering annual discounts of up to $100 in exchange for allowing their power company, Pepco, to occasionally shut off their air conditioning units during hot days, when demand is high. Pepco says consumers will hardly notice the change, and the two-way communication between utility and appliances will go a long way toward preventing brownouts.
Pepco’s discount plan is among the first signs that the futuristic “Smart Grid” has already arrived. Up to three-fourths of the homes in the United States are expected to be placed on the “Smart Grid” in the next decade, collecting and storing data on the habits of their residents by the petabyte. And while there’s no reason to believe Pepco or other utilities will share the data with outside firms, some experts are already asking the question: Will saving the planet mean inviting Big Brother into the home? Or at least, as Commerce Secretary Gary Locke recently warned, will privacy concerns be the “Achilles’ heel” of the Smart Grid?
To advocates, the Smart Grid means appliances will work in electric harmony: Icemakers will operate only when the washing machine isn't, TVs will shut off when viewers leave the room, and so on. All of these gadgets will be wirelessly connected to the Internet. Households with solar panels will actually be able to sell their excess energy back to the power company. The result: lower power consumption, lower power bills, people and planet happier. That's the grand vision of the Smart Grid, a plan to upgrade power meters and electronic devices so they all constantly communicate.
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