RED HOOK — Karen Jerro runs One Less Thing, a business that provides personal assistance and professional organization services. Her job often demands sudden schedule changes and travel. So when Central Hudson Gas & Electric Corp. began a pilot program in the Red Hook area that allows residential and small business customers to monitor and control electricity use remotely, she signed up.
“I think it’s a great program,” she said.
The utility’s Home Energy Saver pilot program, in development for more than a year, is set to begin testing in July. The program offers free “smart” meters, thermostats and controllers to customers who have appliances that demand high energy use — central air conditioners, large pool pumps or electric water heaters. The devices allow customers to monitor and adjust their energy use, either at home or remotely via the Internet. And they allow Central Hudson to collect data and, when necessary, turn those devices off from the central office.
The system seeks to yield costs savings for customers, and gives Central Hudson the potential to control energy demands across the network during peak-usage events such as heat waves.
The utility also admits that if it can find ways to lower energy demands across its network, it can delay spending money on upgrades to that network’s infrastructure. Similar systems are in place elsewhere across the country.
In some places they have been met with controversy, particularly over the use of the smart meters. Some customers have expressed concerns over everything from the health impacts of the transmissions emanating from the meters, to worries about whether their data are being safeguarded.
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The fact that Central Hudson is giving away these meters for free is a sign that the real advantage is not to the consumer. New technology always has the allure of being trendy, and giving a person social status. We all want to be the first to have a new gadget, and come to believe we can't live without something our neighbors have. Customers here are being lured by the promise of convenience and lower bills, but there are some major pitfalls.
On the one hand, electronically micro-managing your electricity usage may shave pennies off your bill here and there, but you could do that yourself by installing timers on your appliances and devices rather than relying on the utility company's system. More to the point though, this will likely lead to Central Hudson charging different rates, to different customers, at different times of day and for different usage demands making bills a nightmare for the customer to interpret in order to explain why they are paying more than ever before. Imagine if the the clerk at the gas station could suddenly see your driving habits, and charge you more because you are a lead-foot, or because you take recreational drives rather than just driving when necessary. Now imagine he could sell that information to your insurance company, to the police. Now imagine too that the clerk could remotely shut down your car for a few hours today, because there is a lot of traffic out there on the road causing congestion and smog. The smart-meter technology puts that power in the hands of the electric company.
It gives the utility company direct access to and control over your appliances and systems, to turn them on or off at their own discretion, not yours. Sure, it may be a convenience to be able to turn down your heating thermostat from the office in order to save a few pennies when you unexpectedly work late, but you also give Central Hudson the power to turn off your air-conditioning in the middle of a hot summer afternoon. They say you can override their decision and turn the system back on, but doing so will probably lead to a premium rate being applied rather than the standard rate charged to regular customers. This also assumes that you are even home to override Central Hudson's decision to turn off your system. Imagine that you are at work, and decide to remotely turn on the air-conditioning in the middle of the afternoon to cool down the house because you are getting out of work early. You get home expecting to find your house cooled down, only to find instead that Central Hudson turned off the air-conditioning right after you had turned it on. Or worse yet, you come home to find a dead pet because Central Hudson turned off the air-conditioning without you knowing. Imagine too, you are away for a week in the middle of winter, and the heat in your home is accidentally turned off, perhaps due to some glitch in the system or error by a utility worker manning the switchboard. Again you come home to find dead pets, and burst plumbing pipes.
Now imagine what sort of mischief could be done by an angry ex who still has your account password, or a criminal who has hacked into the system. The smart meter makes a wireless burst transmission of your data over Verizon's 4G cellular network, for 60 seconds every single day. That is plenty of time for a computer hacker to snatch the information right out of the air. And these are only just a few of the problems with this new technology.
Based on these considerations alone, there are so many plausible scenarios of how these smart-meters could cost you a whole heap of money and aggravation. It's also curious that these are being rolled out just as the utility company shifts from being a local business, to one that was bought out by a foreign company. In a standard risk-versus-reward analysis, these smart-meters don't seem like a very smart choice at all.