Law in the Internet Society

“Compare Your Home’s Energy Use with Your Neighbor’s”

-- By JoannaP - 05 Dec 2019


I’ll admit, as an energy lawyer from a developing country, I did not expect questions about privacy in an energy policy issue. In my Energy Regulation class, we learned of the worldwide efforts to modernize electric grids all over the world and its implications beyond the benefits of a more efficient and reliable energy system.

The Goals of a Smart Grid

The promise of a smart grid can be summarized into this phrase: a more reliable, secure, and efficient electricity infrastructure. It involves solidifying the interconnectedness between supply and demand of energy from across different sectors. This includes deployment of technologies that integrate smart appliances and consumer devices with smart meters in homes. The smart meters enable customers to better manage and control their energy consumption by giving them more information on their energy data. What’s the catch?

Privacy Challenge: Naperville Case

In the case of Naperville Smart Meter Awareness v. City of Naperville, 900 F.3d 521 (2018), the residents of Naperville argued that the energy data collected at 15-minute intervals by smart meters reveal “intimate personal details” such as when they are home, when they sleep, eat, and their type of household appliances. The US Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit acknowledged that although the data collection constitutes a “search,” this was reasonable search because promoting energy efficiency is a substantial government interest. The search, allowable through smart meters, was permitted because electrical grid modernization is “a priority” and allow for more efficient peak management systems, provide cheaper power, and increase grid stability.

The case justified that energy data collection is “less invasive” than the normal home search and is done with “no prosecutorial intent” since it is not the law enforcement that collects the data but the public utility employees.

At its core, these justifications strip the residents’ privacy interests of meaningful recognition. Being less invasive is still invasive. Being spied on by non-law enforcement is still being spied on. The openness to violation is not less or equal, it is just is and it is as constant.

Gainesville or “Creepville”

Here comes the Gainesville Green website that Professor Gerrard showed in class. It is the perfect thesis to the reality and horror of this openness. The website’s slogan states: “Compare your Home’s Energy Use with your neighbor’s,” above a search box where an address in Gainesville Florida can be entered. There is also a searchable map and an advanced search field where zip code, parcel number, square feet, home build year, and apartment complex can be entered.

Typing in “5319 SW 80th St” randomly, the page shows a graph indicating this address’s electricity consumption (kWh) from March 2018 to February 2019. Further exploration reveals that water, natural gas consumption, and carbon footprint from the year 1999-2019 can also be viewed. A map of the subdivision with colored markers shows the neighboring houses’ different consumption levels. Beside the map is the information that the major uses for this address are air conditioner, refrigerator, clothes dryer, water heater, and stove. The electricity data is even downloadable. Additional information provides that this 1463-square foot, one-story house was built in 1980, it has 3 bedrooms, 2 baths, and central air conditioning.

The level of detail is more than invasive, it is creepy. The homepage asks, “how green is your home?” and states, “Gainesville Green helps you save on your energy bills by giving you the tolls needed to draw meaningful comparisons.”

"My house is greener than yours."

Indeed, residents can compare each other’s consumption and more. I believe the website helps residents save on energy bills because they can monitor (or spy) on each other’s’ consumption and as a consequence make each other either feel ashamed or superior. A website like this, and others out there, has the potential to achieve the purpose of teaching awareness and initiative by harnessing emotions much like the way social media platforms so perfectly work. This tool works not because it provides users the control they have of their energy data. But because it encourages staying green through the nurturing of shame and anxiety in competing with others instead of fostering inner desire to conscientiously use energy.

Regardless of how this website was created, the fact of its existence allows us to reflect on the costs of gaining access to information that can help us contribute to energy efficiency efforts. The promise of smart meter is to give users tools that will guide decision-making in energy use. Hence, the reality is that in gaining control, users equally lose some, either in allowing others into how they live, or by letting others’ behaviors guide theirs.

In the climate change perspective, promoting worldwide energy efficiency is a crucial measure as the world moves closer to the tipping point of irreversible damage. As promising as it is, it comes with a price as costly as our freedom. Smart meters provide the tool to control energy consumption but can also provide others a peek into our own behavior. How do we choose?

Bridging the gap through customer-oriented policy choices

Perhaps, the goal to aim for is that we should not have to. Choosing to accept this tool so that we can meaningfully contribute to energy efficiency measures should not be mutually exclusive with choosing to protect our privacy. Measures and programs are available to public utility commissions in forming their smart meter policies. As one article pointed out, there are measures such as maintaining a 1-hour interval collection, which is the longest allowable in maintaining data efficiency, instead of 15-30 minutes. Public utilities can also do an opt-in program where they agree with customers that data will not be released to anyone without written consent and only monthly data will be allowed. This prevents granular data to be available to others such as home marketers and advertisers. This agreement can be further solidified in a more rigid data usage rights contract with built-in security representations from the public utility. Another customer driven approach is allowing customers to choose the smart meter technology they want to use. All these may not be foolproof but the power to choose the level of invasion is not completely stripped off.

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r3 - 19 Jan 2020 - 10:20:37 - JoannaP
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