‘Smart’ electric meters come to NJ, bringing fears of Big Brother
Should your power company know — like Santa Claus — when you are sleeping, and when you are awake?
When you are away on vacation? What kind of refrigerator you have and how old it is?
Rockland Electric, which is installing the state’s first “smart” digital meters in Mahwah this month, says the two-way communication between the new meters and the utility will help it predict and ease power outages and better manage its power grid.
The meters have plenty of other upsides for customers: No more meter readers or estimated bills. No need to call when the power goes out. Customers can monitor their power use and get suggestions for energy-saving products and services.
But the improvements come with an array of concerns. Foremost among them is privacy.
The technology, critics say, makes it possible to pinpoint when residents are home and away, and may also reveal what devices and appliances are being used.
“Even sex toys,” said Jay Stanley, a privacy and technology expert with the American Civil Liberties Union. “Anything that gets plugged into an outlet to be recharged can be identified,” he said.
NJ SPORTS BETTING: What you need to know about sports betting in New Jersey
The smart meters are being rolled out at a time when there is growing concern about our devices’ ability to spy on us. Enormous amounts of data are collected via smartphones. Laptop cameras are vulnerable to hacking. And recently, an Amazon Echo device recorded a couple’s private conversation and sent it to an acquaintance of theirs.
In response to privacy concerns, the ACLU has initiated challenges to the use of smart-meter data in several states, seeking better regulation over who can access the information and under what circumstances.
Pushback in New Jersey
In New Jersey, legislation sponsored by Assemblyman Ronald Dancer of Ocean County would mandate that utilities disclose the type of data they will harvest, how it will be used and what third parties will have access to it.
“The information gathered from smart meters can also decipher what type of activities a customer is engaged in, such as watching television, using a computer, or how long someone spends cooking,” according to the text of the bill.
Additionally, the bill says, information from the meters “includes unencrypted data that can reveal when a homeowner is away from their residence for long periods of time.”
Rockland dismisses such concerns.
“Smart meters … are safe, secure and reliable encrypted devices that will provide two-way, wireless communication between Rockland Electric and its customers’ electric service,” says a company release announcing the program. “Smart meters are designed to provide Rockland Electric customers greater convenience, choice and control over their energy use.”
The technology used to interpret energy use by the unique signals each appliance generates has the unwieldy name “nonintrusive appliance load monitoring.”
“There are … indications that they can tell what appliances you have, what types of television programs you are watching because each program has a unique light and dark pattern,” Stanley said.
Electric cars take the surveillance potential one step further, according to Kate Connizzo of the ACLU in Vermont, one of six states with more than 80 percent residential smart-meter penetration.
“Determining how much electricity was required to recharge an electric car, and extrapolating from that how far it had traveled, would seem to be a pretty simple matter,” said Connizzo. “Put all this together with such devices as automated license plate readers, surveillance cameras, facial recognition technology, and you construct a detailed record of a person’s movements and activities.”
Who sees your data?
Who should have access to data generated by smart meters is already being debated in states where their installation is more advanced.
In California, for example, where over 81 percent of customers have smart meters, a privacy law went into effect in January 2014. It prohibits companies from making a customer’s electrical or natural gas usage accessible to a third party without the customer’s permission.
“The law extends the highest level of protection to the privacy of the home,” Stanley said.
“However, there is something called the third-party doctrine, which says if you give information to a third party, it is no longer protected. So the question is: How are the utility companies going to use this information and protect it?”
Rockland’s own privacy statement says they “may share information with third parties to permit them to send marketing communications or information about products and services.”
Rockland says customers can choose not to share their information by unsubscribing from their customer information list. Dancer’s bill would make such notice mandatory.
Sometimes, though, the sharing is obligatory, particularly with law enforcement armed with a subpoena. Police already issue subpoenas to power companies when investigating illicit activities in a neighborhood. By comparing energy use in a group of homes, for example, police can identify a home using high-power lights to grow marijuana in a basement.
Beyond privacy concerns, critics have pointed to other problems with the meters, including accuracy, cost-effectiveness and the potential health effects from radio waves.
Residents of Bakersfield, California, filed a class-action suit in 2009 alleging their bills rose 300 percent once the meters were installed. Pacific Gas and Electric admitted two years later that the Landis+Gyr meters they installed malfunctioned when they got too warm.
Central Maine Power Co. had to appear before a state legislative committee in February to explain why their $200 million smart-meter system left sections of the state without power for a month after an October storm. The system failed to show the full extent of the power failures, including at schools in two towns.
Cost to consumers
Rockland projects the cost of installing smart meters throughout its service area at $16.5 million. Spokesman Michael Donovan projects the savings at $82.1 million over 20 years. Of that, $56.6 million would come from reduced staffing.
Stefanie Brand, director of the state Division of Rate Counsel, which participated in reviewing Rockland’s proposal from a consumer cost standpoint, said she still has “a lot of question whether the cost will exceed the benefits.”
“They are replacing a meter that lasts 20-40 years with one whose technology becomes obsolete,” Brand said. “We’re still paying for the old meters, plus the new meter. That adds to the cost.”
Brand said there are “other technologies that could be put on the wires that are a lot cheaper.”
“The question is: What are we getting for our money?” Brand said.
Mahwah is pilot program for NJ
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, 47 percent of the 150 million electricity customers in the U.S. now have smart meters.
Rockland’s installation was approved by the state’s Board of Public Utilities and the Division of Rate Counsel last August. Eventually, 73,000 Rockland customers in Bergen, Passaic and Sussex counties will receive the meters in what is being termed a “study” or trial program.
“Rockland is the only company authorized to install smart meters and infrastructure in New Jersey,” said Peter Peretzman, a BPU spokesman. “The board won’t approve any other smart-meter programs until this study is completed. The program will take three years to build out, and then another one or two years of data to review.”
Installations began May 1, with an estimated 1,500 devices already installed in Mahwah. Rockland is a subsidiary of Orange & Rockland Utilities in New York, which has installed 60,000 of the meters in neighboring Rockland County.
“The smart-meter rollout has been extremely positive,” Donovan said. “Customers are anxious to receive their smart meter and start to see the benefits it provides.”
Customers who do not want the smart meters must notify Rockland Electric in writing, by using a form available on the website.
Customers who opt out of the smart-meter installation will be charged $15 a month. Those who opt out after the smart meter is installed will be charged $45 to have it removed.