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Opting Out

Providing reasonable options for customers who object to smart meters.

Fortnightly Magazine - January 2012

Public policy and substantial technical work support the premise that smart grid will produce many benefits for modern society. One way to describe smart grid is to say that it better manages the delivery of electric energy to improve efficiency and reliability. The old adage applies: “You can’t manage what you don’t measure.” Smart meters that measure electric energy flow are therefore one foundational element of most smart grid initiatives.

Of the several ways to communicate with a smart meter, radio has emerged as a dominant choice during the past decade because it’s economical and effective, and because it amply serves current needs while preserving the opportunity to do things that might become valuable in the future. But some people are concerned about smart meters for two reasons:

Health: Smart meters with radios in them produce low-level radio emissions. The human health consequences—if any—of low-level radio emissions aren’t definitively known.

Privacy: No matter what communication method is used, the meter data could potentially be misused to reveal private information about the energy customer, to the disadvantage of that customer.

Some of these concerned citizens seek to opt out of smart metering and, instead, continue to have their energy metered by non-communicating meters that are read manually. A few regulatory commissions in North America have considered this matter, and have decided that consumers should have that option. Some utilities, including City of Lakeland, Fla., BC Hydro, Delmarva Power, and several large utilities serving most of the consumers in Texas, have decided against providing opt-out alternatives. Many others haven’t yet made a decision, or even addressed the question. A significant problem faced by utilities is the array of web sites, news articles, videos, and other media that engage in sensational rumor mongering, spreading misleading or simply incorrect assertions. This is understandably confusing to consumers.

Should opt-out be allowed? If so, how can a utility allow some customers to opt out while preserving the benefits of smart meters and smart grid for all? What will be the most economical, equitable, and practical approach?

The impact of the question expands as smart meter deployments continue. According to Howard Scott, managing director of Cognyst Advisors, 42 million two-way electric and gas smart meters were in service in North America on July 1, 2011. About 35 million of these employ radio transmitters. Scott projects that the total number will be about 48 million at the end of 2011, and might continue increasing by about 1 million meters per month.

These health and privacy concerns didn’t become nationally visible until after major smart meter deployments were in process. The utilities that specified the smart meter features and functions, and the technology companies that developed the metering systems, had no firm basis for knowing that these concerns would become significant. Therefore, the ability of available meter automation systems to facilitate opt out is mixed. These capabilities might change over time, as utility