Feds Tackle Thorny Smart Grid Issues

The smart grid is here already in many towns. Along with energy savings, does it mean the end of privacy? And will there even be enough bandwidth to handle a big jump in increased two-way communications? Two new reports from the Department of Energy are aimed at guiding policy on those questions, and more, and keeping smart-grid development on course.

The first report, “Data Access and Privacy Issues Related to Smart Grid Technologies,” envisions giving consumers the right to limit access to their energy-use data. It recommends that “consumers should be able to choose whether to affirmatively opt in to any non-utility, third-party use of their energy-usage data through a secure and trustworthy process.”

image via PG&E

If smart-grid privacy strikes you as an overblown concern, the report says it shouldn’t: The thing that makes the smart grid smart — its detailed knowledge of the energy use in homes and businesses — could also “reveal personal details about the lives of consumers, such as their daily schedules (including times when they are at or away from home or asleep), whether their homes are equipped with alarm systems, whether they own expensive electronic equipment such as plasma TVs, and whether they use certain types of medical equipment.”

Of course, that would only be the case if the move to a smart-grid doesn’t founder. The second report, “Communications Requirements of Smart Grid Technologies,” notes bandwidth and myriad other infrastructure stresses from the smart grid. It says the scheme will only come to full fruition with vastly improved coordination between all the players involved and, to that end, says “utilities and other Smart Grid constituents should be represented on key federal industry committees that address communications- and network-related security and reliability issues.”

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Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

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