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"Smart Grids" And "Smart Meters”

Wiring the state into a “smart grid,” with every house having a “smart meter,” seemed like science fiction when it was first discussed in the mid-2000s. But it became reality in 2011 when Vermont received a multimillion-dollar federal grant to be the first state in the nation to build a smart grid.

At first, the focus of discussions about the system was on energy conservation: Electrical “loads” could be better managed, outages pinpointed more quickly, and the system made to function more efficiently to everyone’s benefit.

Here's how that could happen: A “smart meter” is installed at people's home. Several times an hour, the meter records exactly how much electricity is being used. This data is automatically transmitted to utility headquarters for monitoring and analysis.

The ACLU’s concern has been this: We worry that privacy issues around “smart meters” and “smart grid” data could be overshadowed in the push to build the new system.

The temptation to use the information that will be collected from customers for something other than managing electrical loads will be strong – as it has been for cell phone tracking data and GPS information. Police may want to know your general comings and goings or whether you’re growing marijuana in your basement under grow lights. Advertisers will want the information to sell you a new washing machine to replace the energy hog you got as a wedding present 20 years ago.

Information flowing in a smart grid will become more and more “granular” as the system develops. Someday, appliances will have computer chips that will tell the grid exactly how much electricity each is using. The grid will be able-- with your consent -- to turn appliances on or off to avoid peak loads.

The legislature declined in 2011 to take up privacy, security, and opt-in/opt-out concerns that were then surfacing. The Vermont Public Service Department, however, recognized that these concerns should be addressed, and it asked the Vermont Public Service Board to include them in its review. The board agreed to do so, held a public hearing in September 2011, and invited comments from interested parties. The ACLU was granted intervenor status and filed comments with the board.

Legislators during the 2012 session were more keyed in to smart meter concerns, and a bill around privacy and opt-in/opt-out was taken up. The ACLU argued privacy concerns could best be addressd in the PSB proceedings.

Legislators decided to focus on possible adverse health effects of wireless (as opposed to wired) smart meters as part of discussions around opt-in/opt-out issues. The Vermont Department of Health presented results of a study it had done and concluded there were limited or no adverse affects from wireless smart meters. Advocates argued there were, and presented evidence from experts rebutting the Health Department's claims. (There is agreement that wired meters do not pose health risks; such meters, however, have fewer capabilities to capture detailed usage information.)

In the end, legislators decided that people who don't want a wireless smart meter installed at their home can opt-out and cannot be assessed additonal fees -- at least until July 2013. (Links to documents from the discussions can be found below.)

As with cell phone data, we think it's fine if police have access to smart meter data -- provided that they go to a court, show probable cause to a judge, and a warrant is granted. But we don't want police secretly obtaining access through, for example, "inquest" proceedings where you never know what personal information is being demanded of whom and turned over to which agency for what purpose.

Consumers need to know who can access their data and under what conditions. Strict privacy controls are needed. Regulators -- or if necessary, the legislature -- should set the controls, make sure they are in place, and are followed.

We continue to work with the Department of Public Service, other advocates, and the utilities (for-profits, municipals, and cooperatives) on the privacy, security, and opt-out/opt-in issues. We believe we have common interests that go to core values. We don’t want people to feel that the smart grid is just one more reach of companies and government into our private lives, or that smart meters are like surveillance devices George Orwell described in his “Big Brother” novel, 1984. Utilities have stated affirmatively that they are committed to protecting customer privacy.

Below are links to documents that explain the ACLU’s concerns about smart meters, as well as links to documents around health issues and legislative actions.


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