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‘Smart’ meters give Xcel a detailed peek into home energy use; ratepayers to pick up tab

DENVER–Xcel Energy is seeking a $52.7 million rate hike on Colorado customers to replace some 5 million less-sophisticated automatic reading meters with “smart” Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) electrical meters.

AMI meters can send sophisticated, detailed data of home electrical use to the company, giving Xcel the ability to peek into your home energy use on a minute-by-minute basis.  This in turn allows Xcel to create a system of tiered rates called time-of-use (TOU) that eliminates the consumer advantage and predictability of use averaging, but which benefits the company both technically and financially.

As previously reported by Complete Colorado, the Attorney General’s Office of Consumer Council objected to a number of items in Xcel’s July 17 “Advance Grid Rider” request–which sought to end-run the public scrutiny usually required for rate hikes–including concerns about transparency, the appropriateness of bypassing usual rate case proceedings and an effort by Excel to essentially charge customers twice for the meter replacement.

In response the PUC sent the matter to an Administrative Law Judge on August 14 and suspended the proposed rate change for 120 days, until December 15.

Xcel says, “these meters will help you to understand what appliances are using the most energy, giving you transparency and more control over your energy use.”

“AMI technology can provide usage data to both the utility and the consumer. This capability, when combined with real-time prices, time-of-day, or other pricing options, gives consumers the information they need to alter their usage and, in some cases, lower their bills,” says the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).

“In some cases” is an important caveat. Some smart meter energy customers have had the opposite experience and have been slammed with unexpected power bills.  In 2018, After Duke Energy began installing smart meters in South Carolina, customers in the Upstate region reported a doubling, and even tripling, of electric bills, according to the Greenville News.

The spread of AMI metering is hardly unprecedented, nor are ratepayers likely to be able to prevent it. The cards were stacked in favor of smart grid technology in 2007.

The switch-over to smart meters is in part due to federal mandates that promote smart grid projects including the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, Title XIII, which established a national policy for grid modernization.

As of 2018 the EIA says that there are more than 76.4 million residential AMI meters and more than 9.9 million commercial AMI meters already installed nationwide.

But advanced smart metering could give Xcel much more granular control over how you use electricity. While Xcel says, “These meters will not control your appliances or other items in your home or business,” that may not always be the case.

The whole point of Internet of Things (IoT) consumer devices is connectivity and the creation of a “Smart Home” that integrates consumer control of home devices. Thermostats, lighting control, entry control and surveillance are all areas of automation that have taken off commercially.

But power companies look at such technology as a means to control the costs of producing power by being able to control the consumption of electricity.

The goal of the smart grid effort is to give Xcel tools to control peak electrical demand. By controlling use of electricity, whether by pricing controls or direct demand-side management of your devices, Xcel doesn’t have to build as many peak-demand generating plants.

This raises significant privacy concerns.

A group sued the City of Naperville, Illinois in federal court to prevent the city-owned utility from collecting such data, claiming it was a violation of their Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure.

Law enforcement often requests power-usage data from power providers as part of investigations into things like illegal marijuana grow houses. That information is released only by subpoena or a warrant issued by a judge, according to state law.

The U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the group in August, 2018, saying that while it is true that the collection of energy-consumption data is indeed a government “search” for the purposes of the Fourth Amendment, it is not an unreasonable one, given the regulations the city has against the release of such data.

“Residents certainly have a privacy interest in their energy-consumption data. But its collection—even if routine and frequent—is far less invasive than the prototypical Fourth Amendment search of a home,” the ruling says. “Critically, Naperville conducts the search with no prosecutorial intent. Employees of the city’s public utility—not law enforcement—collect and review the data.”

Colorado has statutes that prohibit the unauthorized release of customer data, but which also allow customers to complete a waiver form if they want to give third parties access to that data, perhaps to provide smart home services.

That does not take into account any vulnerabilities that might allow hackers or foreign agents to access either the data or the meters themselves.

President Trump declared a national emergency over the threat of hacking in an executive order signed May 1 ordering enhanced efforts to secure the U.S. grid saying, “The unrestricted foreign supply of bulk-power system electric equipment constitutes an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States.”

The smart reader rollout is part of Xcel’s larger Colorado Energy Plan, a multi-billion-dollar scheme to replace fossil fuel electric generation with renewable energy sources.

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