Power versus privacy: The debate over smart grid technology

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. (Feb. 9, 2015)-- In neighborhoods across the country, battle lines have been drawn.

“Get off my property right now,” a Naperville, Illinois resident yelled at a worker.

Other resident have faced arrest.

“I warned you the first time,” a police officer said to another resident. “Place her under arrest.”

The encounters are symbolic nationwide of a growing debate between improved technology and an individual’s right to privacy.

“Our constitution allows us not to have that kind of intrusion on our personal privacy,” Thelma Taormina said, a homeowner in Houston, Texas.

Across the country, including here in Indiana, power companies are updating to 21st century smart grids. The grid is all around us, in our lamps, in our TVs, in our microwaves.

Power companies say the grid is quite old and in desperate need of upgrades, adding smart grids allow them to fix outages faster, meeting a growing demand for electricity and allow customers the ability to monitor their energy usage to reduce their bills.

“Some people compare us to air traffic controllers,” Jay Hermacinski said, a spokesperson for the Carmel-based nonprofit MISO.

MISO operates power grids in 15 states including Indiana. In 2010 they received a federal grant to help expand and monitor smart grid technology.

“We’re talking about frequency, currents, the voltage of the high transmission lines,” Hermacinski said. “It’s not data that directly affects a retail customers.”

But at a local level, privacy experts fear making the smart grid too smart will put personal data at risk.

Power companies are installing digital smart meters in every home, which tracks electricity consumption and transmits that data wirelessly. The question privacy experts want to know is what happens to that data afterwards?

“Power companies can sell this information to data collectors for billions of dollars, and they’ll know every appliance you’re using and when,” Lee Tien said, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “We're seeing a lot of researches want to get ahold of that data. We're seeing companies that do marketing that want to get ahold of that data."

In Indiana, Duke Energy wants state regulators to approve a seven-year, nearly $2 billion project to put its Indiana residents on smart grid technology.

“We take privacy of our customers very seriously,” Lew Middleton said, spokesperson for Duke Energy.

Middleton said if the project is approved, the company won’t have access to any new customer data.

“We don’t share it,” he said. “We don’t sell it to anyone, so we will continue to do that.”

Indiana groups fighting the proposal are urging state regulators to reject the plan.

“What kind of protections should be put in place to protect the public from unnecessary data intrusions?” Kerwin Olson said, executive director of the Citizens Action Coalition.

Federal concern prompted the Department of Energy to release a voluntary code of conduct last month for utilities and third parties nationwide to protect consumer data. The 13-page code, though, is just that, voluntary.

Middleton said in a statement, “While no determinations have been made, we will certainly review and perform an analysis to determine if it makes sense to adopt the Voluntary Code of Conduct when it is final.”

The National Conference of State Legislatures found as of 2013, there were at least 61 enacted or pending bills in 21 states aiming to protect consumer data.

Click here to read about state regulations.

Click here for the National Conference of State Legislatures Energy and Environment Database to search state bills pertaining to smart grids.

U.S. Senators Dan Coats (R-Ind.) and Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) both said they’re monitoring smart grid expansions.

“As states, businesses and utilities expand programs that can track and store greater amounts of consumer data, we must remain conscious of the compelling need to protect consumer information,” Coats said in a statement.

Sarah Rothschild, spokesperson for Donnelly added in a statement:

“Smart grid technology can make our electric grid work better for Hoosier consumers both at their homes and offices through improvements in energy efficiency and better management of power disruptions. As the smart grid continues to emerge, Senator Donnelly believes it is important to balance advances in technology with protecting the privacy of consumers.”

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