Tracking the Bugs with Smart Meter Data

Today in Fortnightly

A few years ago, I was approached by a medical researcher. He asked me to add an agenda item to a meeting I was chairing in Geneva, Switzerland.  

I was chairman of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe’s “Ad Hoc Group of Experts on Cleaner Electricity Production from Coal and Other Fossil Fuels.” A name only a UN bureaucracy could devise. 

The committee membership consisted of governmental and industry representatives from the electric power and fossil fuel industries of fifty-six countries. From North America, Europe, Russia, other states of the former USSR, Turkey, and Israel. 

When I asked the doctor why he wanted to talk to representatives of the electric power industry, he provided the following explanation. He would ask member delegates to support laws and policies in their home countries, enabling epidemiologists free and unrestricted access to real-time electricity consumption data collected by residential smart meters.

His organization had developed the ability to track the spread of various contagious diseases like the flu, by analyzing changes in real-time electricity consumption. The combination of geographic and consumption data available from real-time electric meter readings would allow public health officials to track the origin, path, and intensity of many contagious diseases. Almost instantly. 

Sounded like a terrific new tool. Except for a couple of issues. 

Firstly, my committee was the wrong audience. My industry committee members were mostly from the electric production departments. My governmental members were mostly from the energy departments or fuels agencies. 

I explained this to the researcher. And directed him to electric power regulatory institutions, and associations of electric power companies, dealing with retail electricity and the data he was requesting.

Secondly, I warned him. As noble and beneficial as his health care project was, there was also significant institutional history, in the public utility industries, for restricting access to a consumer’s electric consumption data. 

The potential for abuse was significant. He and his colleagues would be well advised to vet their proposals with other stakeholders before making any specific requests. 

Consider that a pharmaceutical company would find it very advantageous to know which consumers were home with the flu or other illness for targeted marketing. Consider that thieves would also able to use the same data to determine who was not home at a particular time of day. 

Regrettably, I did not hear back from that researcher. Had he made any progress with the regulators and industry associations I had listed for him? 

My assumption is that the request for access to smart meter data for medical research ended up rolled into generic electric data access proceedings, at the various national and state regulatory agencies. 

I hope so. I don’t want to catch the flu this winter either.

Public Utilities Fortnightly features the top writers and opinion-leaders in utility regulation and policy such as Branko Terzic. See his column “Innovation and Capital Recovery” in the November 2016 issue.