One of the big challenges facing the utility industry when it comes to smart meter deployments and advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) are the questions of who owns energy-usage data, how it will be protected, and how privacy will be administered and secured. With that in mind, U.S. Representative Ed Markey introduced a bill this spring designed to give consumers the ability to track and manage their energy consumption.

As smart meter technology continues down the road toward becoming ubiquitous, the technology will have to clear some roadblocks on the way.

The goal of the bill is to allow consumers to view energy usage in real time, either directly through the utility or some form of third party, such as Google or Microsoft. Among other things, the Electric Consumers' Right to Know Act, or e-KNOW Act, requires the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the U.S. Department of Energy to issue guidelines for data security and consumer privacy.

Unresolved Issues

Previous studies have shown that consumers can shave up to 20% of their energy consumption by knowing which appliances are using the most energy. And while smart meters have the potential to turn into a significant conservation tool for utility customers, the e-Know bill leaves several key issues unanswered.

Standards must be developed and agreed upon for all utilities to follow to provide data to customers and/or the third-party provider they choose to work with. As currently written, the bill does not address the standards issue.

Some have legitimate concerns about how the customer data will be protected from security breaches once utilities turn it over to third parties. Exactly who will be responsible for security of customer data once it leaves the hands of the utility? This is obviously a big concern of the electric utility industry, which works so hard to protect data and will be helpless once they lose control of it to third parties.

Utilities will incur incremental costs to support third-party and consumer data requests, and the cost structure of providing this data must be addressed. If the data is provided free of charge to customers who request it, as the bill currently states, utilities will likely fund this by including a surcharge in the base rate for all customers.

The general population, however, isn't interested in paying for this data, according to early results from a utility's pilot project. One option is to implement a potential fee structure and charge only those customers who request this data, as opposed to including it in rate base for all customers.

The Bottom Line

The Right to Know Act also needs to better define the term “smart meter,” as the wording in the bill suggests that any AMR meter is considered a smart meter and therefore is capturing data at 15-minute intervals. However, the type of meters deployed thus far by utilities has varied widely. In one case, all of the meters are AMR meters but capture only 15-minute data for customers who are on time-based rates. This utility is concerned that the Right to Know bill will require them to provide 15-minute interval data, including 24 months of history, to any customer who asks for it. If this is the case, they would need to invest in their AMR infrastructure and back-office systems in order to capture and store 15-minute interval data for every electric customer for 24 months.

Generally, it makes more sense for a utility to send customers whatever data it has for them when they ask for it. Many customers take electricity for granted and are not interested in real-time usage patterns, or even hourly patterns. Others who are more technically inclined or conservation-minded might request more granular data. In that case, the utility would turn on the capability to capture granular data when the customer requests it.

It simply isn't cost effective to capture 15-minute interval data for every customer unless it will be used for some purpose such as billing or to satisfy a customer's data request.

Sharing Data

It's important to remember that utilities have always been open to sharing information with customers and agree that the consumer deserves to know how much energy they consume and how much it costs to operate certain appliances within the home. However, the issues outlined in this column regarding the third-party sharing of this information must be resolved before legislation is passed.

The Right to Know bill, as well as other topical smart metering and AMI issues, will be covered in depth at Autovation, the Utilimetrics Smart Utility Conference and Exposition, Sept. 12-15 in Austin, Texas, U.S.


Joel Hoiland (jhoiland@utilimetrics.org) is CEO of Utilimetrics, which provides advocacy for utilities and information about innovative technologies that lead to improved operations, customer service and resource utilization.