Smart Grid Obstacle

We all tend to think of the Dutch as pretty relaxed and forward-thinking people. But last year they rebelled against a proposed compulsory rollout of smart meters, on grounds that the equipment could reveal too much personal detail to utility company employees and expose citizens to wrong-doing.

Those kinds of concerns may seem exaggerated but in fact they're serious and will have to be squarely addressed, speaker after speaker emphasized at a smart grid technical conference, sponsored by the IEEE Communications society and held at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), in Gaithersburg, Md. A conference track featured presentations on "false data injection," malicious data attacks, statistical methods of attack detection (and concealment), and "data anonymization."

In the United States, because of 9/11, when we think of smart grid vulnerabilities, we probably think first of terrorist cyber attacks. But there are other things to worry about too. False data injection, for example, is a tactic not only Al Qaeda could employ but also crooked traders, seeking to create fake market conditions that affect price. Instead of creating congestion in order to make money relieving it, as Enron traders boasted they did, a malicious data injector could just create the appearance of congestion and reap millions.

One clear message from the very cosmopolitan and sophisticated SmartGridComm conference: Every country has its own experiences and obsessions, and all that has to be taken into account if the smart grid is to live up to its billing.

According to press reports, Dutch voters worried that meters relaying information as often as every 15 minutes could tip utility workers off to when houses were empty or expensive new appliances had been bought. Seem paranoid? Well, it just so happens that this summer my family traded houses with a Dutch family living in an affluent suburb of Haarlem, near Amsterdam. Every door to the outside--four in all--and every ground-floor window had three locks that had to be opened with different keys. Evidently the Dutch living in Haarlem--however relaxed and forward looking they may be--don't like to have their belongings stolen. (They seem to worry about that more, in fact, than the yuppies moving these days into New York's Harlem.)

In Germany, because of sensitivities associated with Nazism, the Federal government has repeatedly found it impossible to conduct national censuses. Citizens worry that if the government gets too much personal information, once again some day Gestapo agents may be pounding on the door in the middle of the night. Seem paranoid to you? It doesn't actually matter what you think. What matters is what Germans think--and Siemens, a major player in smart grid technology and a prominent contributor of experts in Gaithersburg, is no doubt acutely aware of that.

In England, the Department of Energy and Climate Change intends to see all households equipped with smart meters by 2020, at a cost of about $13 billion. The anticipated average saving to each household will come to $45/year.

So let's be clear: That's significant--and very big in aggregate--but not huge on a per-person basis. If citizens are to be persuaded the smart grid is a good thing and are to be talked into helping make it work to best advantage, they will have to be convinced of its public benefits and assured its downside can be managed. As a source told the Times of London: "The backlash against smart meters could be aggressive if the message that they will reduce energy consumption and help lower carbon emissions is not made clear. The government also has to address these privacy and security issues. Many people do not like the idea of utility companies having a permanent window on their private lives."

There are ways of engineering around privacy and security concerns, as another post in the space recently detailed, but as it also said, engineering alone will not be able to do the whole job.

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