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Friday, 20 March 2015

Smart Meters: Saving the Environment or Spying on Citizens?

A guest post by Emma Bailey

With growing international concern about the environment, power consumption, and the correlation of said consumption to environmental problems, we've seen a dramatic uptick in research into efficiency measures, as well as research into renewable energy alternative. What we see is, improved energy efficiency can make an immediate positive impact on the environment. With more real-time usage data, energy providers can better provide the energy consumers need, issue more accurate billing and help homeowners implement a home energy savings plan.

One of the efficiency measures that is gaining popularity, particularly abroad, is smart meter technology. These meters seem promising, but they don't come without their share of controversy.

What are Smart Meters?
The idea behind smart meters is very simple. These are devices that are used to record consumer energy usage and transmit this data back to local energy companies. This information is communicated to the energy companies at least once a day and can be used in a more real-time fashion than previous types of metering solutions. The benefits of this system are that users can better monitor, and thus change, excessive energy consumption. It also financially benefits people who choose to use energy during non-peak hours by offering them lower rates during those times.

Privacy Concerns
While at first blush, these meters might seem like a smart business and environmental decision, there are many that have valid privacy concerns. As we have seen in the past, consumer data, no matter how seemingly insignificant, can have immense value to a variety of parties. With the slew of recent hacking scandals of major corporations, it's become all too clear that none of our information is as secure as we'd like it to be. Consumer privacy advocates worry about the potential for the sale of private energy consumption data to governments and/or other businesses.

Voluntary Energy Code of Conduct
As a means to soothe consumer privacy concerns, the Department of Energy has unveiled the Voluntary Energy Code of Conduct. Signing off on this code of conduct is not, as the name implies, compulsory. This code of conduct is comprised of a number of different smart practice measures that utility and associated agencies use to help ensure that consumer data is safe and secure. These measures include a consumer's right to know about changes in company privacy policy, as well as to have a say in how and who can use their private data.

Potential Benefits
There are a wealth of potential benefits (as well as some valid concerns) when it comes to the use of smart meters. Estimbated billing has been the bane of the consumer for years. More sensitive, real-time measuring devices allow for more accurate billing, saving customers countless amounts of money on energy bills.  Despite valid privacy concerns that are being addressed (as well as those which will be addressed in the future), smart meter technology has the potential to really help consumes manage their energy usage, as well as provide for more accurate billing, thus reducing the energy overpayment that currently occurs. While the debate rages on, any technologies that have proven to provide efficiency increases as well as energy saving applications should be strongly considered.

Emma Bailey is a US writer and tech enthusiast who has been following recent developments in smart meter technology, particularly with regard to consumer privacy issues.

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