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Does it make you Nervous when Machines Talk to Each Other?
Helping Consumers Face Smart Grid Fears in a Brave New Energy World

by Patty Durand, Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative

“The Internet of Things (IoT) refers to the vision that in the next twenty years, a revolution in device-to-device communication will take place that will be comparable to the revolution in person-to-person communication that erupted in the last two decades with the Internet and World Wide Web. We believe the vision is credible – that the second revolution will in fact occur and is already beginning before our eyes.” – Robert Saracco IEEE Time Machine (May 2011)

If you are an engineer, the vision described above may excite you, although it will likely not surprise you. You are familiar with (may have even helped develop) advanced technologies in automation and communications that support our ever-smartening electric grid.

However, if you are a layperson, the vision of an increasingly computerized future may startle and even frighten you.

Smart grid characteristics like increasing automation and centralization of supervisory capacity – or alternatively, the distribution of intelligent controls making them ubiquitous – can provoke a variety of fears among consumers. Some concerns are quite reasonable; some may be rooted in ignorance or misconceptions; others are almost primal.

Consumer Engagement 101

To address consumer concerns, smart grid stakeholders of all kinds will need to:

  1. recognize and sort through concerns consumers may have;
  2. acknowledge and explain the risks; and
  3. communicate the benefits of smart grid technologies.

If we want consumer support, we must give them the tools – including the information to put the whole picture into perspective – to play the role of energy partners that the 21st century grid demands. In many cases, this is going to mean allowing greater transparency into utility infrastructure investments and exploring new ways to expand consumer access to information – increasing consumer touch points and human interaction to balance increased automation.

Acknowledge Reasonable Concerns

It is not alarmist, but prudent, to examine the potential for increased vulnerability that smart grid innovation could bring. It’s not a bad start to simply acknowledge that consumers deserve answers to items they anticipate could expose them or the grid to risk. What used to be a ‘poles, wires and power’ business, is about to become a ‘customer relations-energy communications’ industry. These issues, along with the duty to provide safe and reliable power, are intrinsic to this work. While it is sometimes not acknowledged as often as deserved, electric utilities across the United States do a spectacular job routinely meeting demand and making affordable power widely available. Now we need to stay humble and learn how to talk about what we do and about the challenges we face that we cannot address without consumer support.

Privacy

A prime example of a reasonable concern – but one that can also provoke significant controversy – is privacy. As a baseline, every utility must provide a communications plan that includes (1) listening to the local community’s values regarding who will own and share personal data and (2) outlining what additional safeguards the utility has embraced or enabled along with their smart grid programs and (3) conveying any options consumers may avail themselves of to manage their energy information.

Security

Inherent in the American character (and written into our founding documents) is a healthy dose of distrust of a too-powerful government. In the modern era, these misgivings extend to the potential for too-powerful commercial entities as well. No smart grid vision can fail to examine and take into account the widespread consumer impulse to safeguard ourselves as much as possible from security scenarios that could be exploited.

While, like privacy, the issue of security can provoke significant controversy, it is also foundational to smart grid success to clearly acknowledge the potential risks of shared infrastructure. Deliberate physical or cyber abuse by a government entity (our own or a malicious rogue state), by corporations, hackers, or terrorists; accidental breaches by natural disasters, simple accidents, interference by wildlife, structural depreciation in aging infrastructure, neglect, and human error are all potential sources of vulnerability that may concern consumers. Several utilities have excelled at demonstrating their recognition of these needs, without revealing excessive details of their security measures.

A utility’s ability to tread this fine line, as noted above, may require a reassessment of whether or not past communications and business dealings have been fully transparent and truthful. Consumers need a consistent record of good faith and responsible behavior and are reasonable in expecting accountability from those who (literally) hold the reins of power in their communities. If changes are needed, this too is an opportunity to improve future consumer support by acknowledging and addressing areas for improvement.

Health and Environmental Impacts

Our world is changing. Radio frequencies and electromagnetic fields penetrate more of our living space. Increasing concern for carbon dioxide emissions is driving a re-examination of energy sources. Consumer concerns can play a useful role in both identifying and reminding energy industry professionals of the public safety priorities they share.

Utilities’ best interests in the long run are served by joining the conversation and making choices that will support society through responsible and healthy energy programs. Because those in the energy and communications fields are among those with the best understanding of the benefits of these technologies, they are ideally positioned to provide a balanced perspective of the risks and benefits of smart grid programs.

Misconceptions and Primal Fears

Despotic Automation

We’ve all seen those movies where robots take over the world and enslave humans. They’re good entertainment. Perhaps they fascinate us by exaggerating our human fears about the power of our own creations or the impact of unintended consequences. Without a balancing consideration of the benefits of technology, fear of technology can distort consumer attitudes to the concept of mass-deployed automation and advanced controls on our power grid. While few would suggest that smart grid could spawn some sort of “rise of the machines” post apocalyptic threat, utilities can ratchet down general anxiety about the increasing role of technology in our world by helping consumers understand it better.

We can explore simple ways to increase consumer understanding of the scope, uses, and limits of technology already helping in their community. For example, while few consumers open their bills looking to learn more about transmission and distribution, many might be pleased to learn that automation software already on their lines (thanks to utility investment in their community) helped prevent or restore outages in their neighborhood after the last thunderstorm. It’s time to learn how to share the benefits automation has already brought to consumers.

Consumer concerns about an increasingly automated world may be best addressed by both citing the improvements to reliability that have come from automation and at the same time conveying to consumers the ways that human engagement – with its redeeming capacity for common sense, intuitive and compassionate judgment, and imaginative problem-solving (among other qualities) – is still present in control rooms.

Centralization & Distribution

These aspects of an automated grid can benefit from similarly creative efforts to enhance consumer understanding and acceptance by educating them to the beneficial uses they already enjoy.

Risks/Benefits Analysis Needed

Like any interaction in modern society, smart grid brings risks and benefits. Sharing with consumers the industry’s sincere desire – and revealing its motivations and incentives – to balance these two factors will be an important task. Smart grid stakeholders need to lead the charge to engage consumers as never before and to educate and lend perspective to inform consumer participation in the energy process.

Energy Industry as Advocates

Along with the realization that automation is beginning to affect electric consumers and to require their financial support, cooperation, and energy use habits, the industry at large has been realizing a new era of consumer engagement is upon us.

The Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative (SGCC), which formed in early 2010, seeks to meet that need. Made up of over 70 members from regulatory, utility, technology vendors, and environmental and consumer advocacy groups, the group pools member resources to fund valuable research. In January 2011, SGCC published the “2011 State of the Smart Grid Consumer Report”, a meta-analysis of more than 80 industry source documents, providing a valuable baseline view into the industry’s current understanding of consumer engagement. SGCC will be addressing other knowledge gaps identified by its members through two new 2011 studies, Smart Grid Consumer Pulse and Excellence in Customer Engagement, available October and November 2011.

Educating the Masses

Ignorance drives fear; therefore, knowledge drives it out. As utilities consider their task to inform consumers, it is also useful to examine the flipside of this equation: What might the industry fear about consumers? Industry stakeholders can arm themselves for positive consumer engagement with information from SGCC resources. Sharing success stories, developing best practices, joining private monthly conference calls to debate or problem solve, gaining peer support and facilitating cross-stakeholder discussion are exciting new opportunities being embraced by an industry increasingly aware of the need to engage consumers.

About the Author

Patty Durand is executive director of the Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative, a consumer focused nonprofit aiming to promote the understanding and benefits of modernized electrical systems among all stakeholders in the United States. Durand’s prior experience includes smart grid research at Georgia Tech, and she is the past director for the Georgia Chapter of the Sierra Club, focused on climate change and energy policy. She also serves on the board of the Smart Grid Society for the Technology Association of Georgia. Durand earned a master’s degree in business administration from the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., and a bachelor’s degree from Virginia Commonwealth University.





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