The Smart Grid as the Slave Grid

We have all heard the hype about the “smart grid” and it goes something like this:  North Americans are using too much energy.  Consequently, the energy grid is under great stress and may fail.  Our only hope is for the grid to become “smart” because if it remains dumb then we will be left in the dark and cold.  The first step is to accept smart meters because they will allow time-of-day billing and will, therefore, discourage energy consumption during peak hours.  This will ensure that our futures will remain bright and cheery.

Now, it’s true that time-of-day billing can provide benefits to both energy producers and consumers in the same manner that happy hour benefits the pub owner and his clientèle:  some customers will take advantage of happy hour and will benefit from lower drink prices while the proprietor suffers less from business peaks and valleys.

However, what the technocrats do not readily disclose is that the smart grid goes way beyond time-of-day billing.  You see, the term “smart grid” is really techno-speak for an energy regulation system that will ultimately reach deep into your home.  It will become an indispensable tool in the arsenal of those who want to control your day-to-day life.  In the long term it will not only monitor your detailed energy usage but will also be used to punish you for consuming energy in a non-approved manner, or even for using non-approved devices.  The smart grid is the slave grid.

The key to the smart grid is the smart meter.  It is common knowledge that smart meters typically employ wireless technology that allows meters to communicate with one another.  In this way, the hundreds of meters in a given neighborhood form a large “mesh” network that allows consumption data to be relayed back to the the energy provider’s billing system.

However, the most recent smart meters incorporate one, or more, “Trojan Horse” technologies that will allow two-way communication to occur from the meter to grid-enabled devices inside your home.  Hence, talk of the smart grid inevitably revolves around “home area networks”; i.e., the extension of the smart grid into your energy-consuming appliances, tools and lights.

One of the Trojan Horse technologies that is gaining traction with the smart grid crowd is called “Zigbee”.  Zigbee is the trade name for a specific type of wireless radio-frequency (RF) link.  If your electricity, water or gas meter has Zigbee, then it has the basic capability to communicate with Zigbee-enabled devices inside your home.  Note that such meters can be difficult to recognize.  For example, the residents of B.C. must look for the “OpenWay” logo on their electricity meters [1] [2].

Even if your smart meter has Zigbee capability, your energy provider may not have enabled its use.  However, turning on the feature would be a technically simple thing to do.  A letter from Elster to the Ontario Energy Board states that their two-way communication meters allow for remote software upgrade for the activation of “future options within the meter for added services” [3].  Such upgrades and the enabling of new features could be done without you knowing it.

Now, you might wonder if you have any Zigbee-enabled devices in your home.  It is possible, though at this time such products are just being rolled-out.  For example, General Electric is marketing a Zigbee hot water heater [4].  SafePlug makes a remotely controlled A.C. power outlet.  The Zigbee Alliance website allows you to search amongst the myriad products that use its technology [5].  This list of products is long and getting longer.

In the future, all appliances may have embedded Zigbee capability because the technology will become very cheap and will be integrated with components already inside the products.  Consequently, it will likely be difficult to determine if such technology is inside the products, or not.

Once enabled, the marriage of the smart grid and your home area network could enable the remote tracking of some interesting, and traditionally private, bits of information, such as:

1.  The details of each grid-connected device that you own.

2.  When you use them, and for how long.

3.  Where the devices have been before they arrived on your premises.

One could easily imagine the state passing smart grid laws that make it illegal for you to disable, or tamper with, your home area network or the devices connected to it.  Imagine the degree of inspection and control to which you, the consumer-slave, could be subjected.  For example:

1.  Prior authorization could be required before you connect any device to the grid.

2.  Your use of non-approved devices could be deemed an illegal act.

3.  The times that you are permitted to use specific devices could be tightly regulated.

The possibilities are limitless and highly attractive to those who want to control you and to learn the details of your daily life.  For example, your clothes washing and drying could be limited to late night hours and the pounds of laundry per week could be capped.  Your air conditioning could be turned-off remotely (note:  my local utility has already rolled-out Internet-connected thermostats that permit this, though customers must volunteer for this “feature”).  The use of non-CFL bulbs could be detected and reported.  If a device was previously owned by someone else, it might be possible to determine if the seller paid sales tax after you purchased it.  Your toaster could relay information on how much bread you are toasting each day.

It is interesting to note that the average person only knows about time-of-day billing, but this alone has raised grave concerns in the minds of many people.  Some folks in B.C. are revolting by posting signs on their house informing the utility that they will not accept smart meters, and some are encasing their old meters in metal cages so that they cannot be replaced [6].

As a result, the smart grid industry is facing increasing scrutiny and the corporate and special interest groups are worried.  For example, if you check-out the website of the 3rd Canadian Smart Grid Summit, recently held in Toronto [7], you’ll see presentations that include topics such as:

1.  Facilitating behavioural change through technology and education-based customer engagement.

2.  Overcoming challenges in engaging customers to encourage energy efficiency.

3.  Making home energy management appeal to the more reluctant segments.

4.  Identifying and understanding barriers to uptake of energy efficiency and renewable energy in the residential sector.

The smart grid people have good reason to hold conferences about “facilitating behavioural change” and “overcoming challenges in engaging customers”.  They know that the reach of the smart grid is being exposed.

Do we need the smart grid to save us from the dark and cold?  Of course not.  And we certainly don’t need a grid that reaches into our homes and communicates with our appliances and light bulbs.  The smart grid, with its home area network tentacles, is designed to ultimately serve those who want to control you.  In the meantime they need to facilitate “behavioural change” and make energy management “appeal to the more reluctant segments”.  The central planners know they have some convincing to do.

The smart grid is the slave grid.  Now, was that four pieces of toast you ate this morning?

References:

[1] “BC Hydro Selects Itron as Supplier of Smart Metering System and Meter Data Management”, https://www.itron.com/newsAndEvents/Pages/BC-Hydro-Selects-Itron-as-Supplier-of-Smart-Metering-System-and-Meter-Data-Management-System-.aspx (Itron.com)

[2] Identify Your Meter, http://www.stopsmartmetersbc.ca/html/?page_id=338 (Stopsmartmetersbc.ca)

[3]  Letter from Jack D. Robertson, B.Sc (Eng.), Vice President and General Manager, Elster Metering

to Peter H. O’Dell, Ontario Energy Board, Jan. 7, 2005 (http://www.ontarioenergyboard.ca/documents/cases/RP-2004-0196/2005-01-submissions/sm_comment_elster_180105.pdf)

[4]  “GE First with ZigBee Smart Energy Appliances”,   http://www.electronichouse.com/article/ge_first_with_zigbee_smart_energy_appliances/C157 (Electronichouse.com)

[5]  Zigbee Certified Products, http://www.zigbee.org/Products/ByFunction/AllFunctions.aspx (Zigbee.org)

[6] Moratorium & Opt Out, http://www.stopsmartmetersbc.ca/html/?page_id=117 (Stopsmartmetersbc.ca)

[7] Canadian Smart Grid Summit website (http://smartgridsummit.ca)

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