White House Promotes a Smarter Grid


". . .but early efforts have been met with some consumer resistance."

MIT Technology Review, Kevin Bullis

This week Secretary of Energy Steven Chu announced new initiatives to support the development of the smart grid. But he also warned that the United States isn't doing enough to get the grid ready for cheap renewable energy. And he acknowledged privacy concerns are making some utility customers wary of new smart meters, which are a key component of the smart grid.

The initiatives include a nonprofit organization called Grid 21 that will promote new smart-grid technologies to consumers, a student competition aimed at improving energy efficiency at home, a series of meetings about Recovery Act smart-grid projects, and a "rapid response team" to speed up the review of potential energy-transmission projects. The U.S. Department of Agriculture also announced $250 million in loans for rural grid development. Full details can be found here.

Much of this can be managed with technology that will be invisible to consumers. But one vital part of an advanced grid—the smart meter—affects consumers directly. And where efforts have already been made to deploy smart meters, such as California, these have sometimes met with resistance. Smart meters allow utilities to keep track of each household's power consumption throughout the day, making it possible to charge consumers higher rates at peak demand hours. In addition, some consumers have serious privacy concerns, as Chu acknowledged.

Chu said that utilities are responding to these concerns by making sure the new data can't be hacked, but he didn't specify how, nor did he say whether the government plans to put controls on how utilities or the government could use the information.

That document (in PDF form here)—a policy framework written by Cabinet officials—provides more detail about privacy issues. Significantly, the document notes that energy usage data is probably not covered under existing privacy laws.

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