Jan 5, 2012
Last week I told you that I have been learning as much as I can about OG&E’s smart meter rollout from conversations with a gentleman that has an extensive background in areas relevant to smart meters/smart grid. Let’s just call him ‘Stephan’. Stephan is an electrical engineer and published author with dozens of patents in digital communications and network storage. He is the founder, contributor and executive for multiple hi-tech companies including an internet company and he has decades of service to his credit on National Standards Committees.
A smart meter is usually an electrical meter that records consumption of electric energy in intervals of an hour or less and communicates that information at least daily back to the utility for monitoring and billing purposes. Smart meters enable two-way communication between the meter and the central system. Unlike home energy monitors, smart meters can gather data for remote reporting. Such an advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) differs from traditional automatic meter reading (AMR) in that it enables two-way communications with the meter. From wikipedia
In Pressing Issues About OG&E’s Smart Meter Rollout, I hit on some of the most obvious concerns about this program and covered where the authority to force consumers to accept the meters come from. The authority for OG&E to implement the system on each home is derived from, not from state of federal statute, but from rules promulgated by the Oklahoma Corporation Commission.
There is no federal mandate that requires that smart meters be installed. However, relevant federal law does favor smart meters, smart grid, time based pricing by providing grants to states incentivize adoption of smart meters/grid.
Smart grid has been a priority of the Obama administration. The Department of Energy awarded 100 grants totaling $3.4 billion for smart grid projects. Many of them have been used to install smart meters in states like California, Texas, Maryland and Connecticut. http://business380.com/2011/11/21/alliant-midamerican-in-no-rush-to-embrace-smart-meters/
This is true in Oklahoma as well.
The primary reason given for OG&E’s desire to move forward with the smart meters was plainly stated to be mostly due to the availability of millions in federal stimulus funds.
Some customers believe the Corporation Commission allowed OG&E to jump too quickly for the carrot dangled by the Department of Energy to the detriment of their captive ratepayers.
There are a variety of technologies available to the utilities that can be used to operate the smart meters but OG&E picked the more privacy invasive of these technologies. Stephan contrasts OG&E’s choice of technology to that of the OEC (Oklahoma Electric Cooperative) which is not as privacy intrusive as that of OG&E.
OEC, explains Stephan, does not use an RF “mesh” to transmit data to the utility. Instead, it uses existing power lines to transmit signals. He explains that with OG&E’s system every home is required to have a meter that contains a 900 MHz radio and a 2.3GHz radio. Those radios are always on in listening mode. OG&E’s implementation will transmit data from each home at least once every 4 hours, and as often as once per hour.
Unfortunately, we do not have the option of voting with our wallets. If you are an OG&E customer, you are stuck with the new digital meters.
I asked Stephan to look at the Oklahoma Corporation Commission’s ‘Commonly Asked Questions About Smart Meters’ document and see if he agreed with the information provided.
Here are some of the major disagreements with the document that Stephan outlined for me.
Do Smart meters relay my personal information?
No. No personal information is displayed on the outside or contained in the new meter. Your account number, address, and personal information are never transmitted by the meter. Smart meters relay a code that is associated with your account along with usage information on a 15 minute interval. The data transmitted by the meter is also encrypted for your protection.
Every data transmission from a Smart meter to the utility contains an identifying meter number. That meter number is uniquely attached to your account, so every transmission from a Smart meter contains personal information.
Any information that contains an identifying number is classified as personal information. That includes your social security number, your driver’s license number, your employee badge number, your license plate number, and in this case, your Meter number. There exists a database which links the meter number with name, address, useage, payments, etc. While that database is not publically accessible, there are numerous instances where databases and servers have been hacked. It is Naïve and Foolish to believe that any database is totally secure. Even if great lengths have been taken to protect the data as it goes into the database, there is no way to protect the data from those that actually control the database. Databases can be hacked from the inside as well as the outside.
Are smart meters secure from electronic attacks?
The OCC says;
Security is of concern to the Commission when considering Smart meter projects. To date, the programs approved have been subject to extensive third party testing. Again, it is also important to remember that no personal or account data is transmitted by the Smart meter.
No. At least not the ones being used by OG&E.
No wireless electronic device can be secure from electronic attacks. Just as no mechanical device can be secure from an explosion. The issue with electronic attacks is that they are often undetected and can also cover a very large number of devices simultaneously.
Electronic attacks can take several forms.
(a) Direct interception of data
(b) Hijacking data input or output
(c) “Man-in-the-Middle” attacks
(d) Hijacking of the meter and re-programming
(g) Ability to monitor several properties electronically to check for patterns indicating no one home during the day or vacation mode.
Most important, even if the data transmission itself is secure, the data will eventually reside on a server somewhere. Servers containing banking information and credit card information are routinely hacked. Utilities are hacked. Satellites are hacked. Military drones are hacked. The only information that cannot somehow be compromised is information that is never transmitted or stored.
Stephan adds and answers an important question not addressed by the Oklahoma Corporation Commission’s FAQ.
What are the security risks of Smart meters?
1. Data interception and decoding by hackers. There is no such thing as a secure wireless network. There are many techniques to capture data, decrypt it and analyze it. The “mesh” network is particularly insidious from a security standpoint because any person in the area, in a home, a car, or business can monitor hundreds of homes simultaneously. Hackers are remarkably adept at obtaining tools, and radios that operate on the 900 MHz band are readily available.
2. What else operates on the 900 MHz band? Garage Door openers, TV and satellite remotes, Cordless phones, WIFI. The meter radio is always on and will detect activation of any consumer device within the home. It may not be able to decode it, but consumer devices have signatures that can be used to locate proximity and timing.
3. Viruses. Viruses are devious pieces of software that are usually undetected during normal operation, but that activate based on specific criteria. The Smart meter contains downloadable code capability, which means that the software that operates the meter can be updated over the wireless network. A sufficiently sophisticated virus could cause all meters to shut down at a certain time on a certain day, for example, and then not turn back on again. The utility company would have to manually repair or replace every meter in the entire network one by one in order to restore power.
4. The expected service life of these meters is in the range of 20 years or so. It is naïve to believe that decrypting technology will not exist within that timeframe that will expose the network and every homeowner to serious and irreparable harm.
Will smart meters let the utility or other entities know what appliances I am using or what television programming I am watching?
[I am not aware of any allegation that smart meters allow your television programming to be monitored and neither is Stephan. We will overlook that apparent red herring and just address the real issue of whether or not the new smart meters can enable the utility or others to discern what appliances are being used by the occupant. kb]
The OCC says;
No. Consumer privacy is very important to the Commission. The Smart meter only transmits total power consumed in 15 minute intervals. While advanced Smart meter systems that track “per appliance” usage will be available in the future, the program will be voluntary and will only show the power consumed.
But Stephan says;
Even if an appliance doesn’t send a signal to the smart meter directly, the energy used by each appliance has a signature that can be identified. Think of being able to know which of your neighbors is driving down the street based upon the noise of their car. With a little experience, you can detect the sound of the muffler or breaks. You can tell the difference between a motor cycle and an automobile and a Semi-truck by the way they sound. Likewise, a great deal of information can be inferred about an appliance’s use by looking at a residence’s electrical profile.
The profile is essentially a summation of all of the current being used by all of the appliances and you can easily break them apart and figure out which appliance is being used. For example, a refrigerator operating in a fixed temperature environment when no one is at home will cycle on and off at a predictable frequency. It is just a motor that draws a fixed current for a period of time. Likewise, an air conditioner will cycle for a period of time, then turn off, then cycle again. The A/C will cycle more frequency as it gets hotter outside and there is more heat loss from the residence. If a set-back thermostat is being used, then A/C profile will look different. When the temperature is raised by the set-back thermostat, there will be a long delay without the A/C cycling. It will then cycle periodically throughout the day. When the set-back thermostat adjusts the temperature to cool the residence in preparation for the family’s return, there will be an unusually long cycle while the house cools down. An oven or stove has an identifiable profile as do most appliances – even televisions and washers and dryers.
Hence, by knowing the profile of the energy use, a great deal can be inferred about the occupancy of the home. Likewise, comparing energy profiles from day to day, an analyst can easily tell if the residents are on vacation and have turned the A/C up to save energy.
Stephan explains that, the goal of the Smart grid is to makes consumer’s consumption dependent upon the weather. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like the sound of that.
Here are the facts.
1) Our energy comes from 2 sources – electrical plants and renewable sources such as windmills and solar cells.
2) Renewable energy sources are very unreliable. They are highly dependent upon weather patterns.
3) One of the objectives of the Smart Grid is to make consumption more closely match variable generation. In other words, the power that you are allowed to use depends on the weather.
Stephan explains further that, power plant construction has been severely curtailed and it takes approximately 11 years to build a coal-fired power plant. A great deal of money and effort over the past few years has gone into “green energy”. However, as utilities are now discovering, because the energy is unreliable, it cannot replace power plants. The goal of the Smart grid is to makes consumer’s consumption dependent upon the weather.
The true cost of windmill and photovoltaic energy has never been reasonably figured into the cost equation. According to OG&E’s estimates, up to 40% of the power generated by windmills is unusable because it is not consistent. Any person that has even looked at a PhotoVoltaic off-grid system understands that the photo cells are only a part of the cost, there is also the cost of energy storage in the form of batteries, and a back-up generator for periods of extraordinary use or cloudy days.
In short, renewable energy sources can be a small supplement for energy use, but can never be depended upon for normal production. It does not save the building of power plants as those plants will need to be built anyway for periods when the wind isn’t blower or there are cloudy days. The cost of renewable energy is actually several times more than the capital costs of installation divided by the energy produced as you still have to have a backup power source.
OG&E has already deferred the building of one new power plant.(the stated goal is to defer two plants)
Are we setting ourselves up for exactly what Stephan is warning us about; that our power will become dependent on whether or not the sun shines or the wind blows?
“There is a law of unintended consequences. Whenever a monopolistic enterprise attempts to enforce a specific solution on the populace without the self-correcting action of the free market, or tramples upon the right of privacy or consumer choice, there will be consequences. They may be political, sociological, medical, financial, or can contribute to the loss of life and liberty. It is our duty to find solutions to our problems that do not infringe upon the liberties of the individual or the sanctity of the home.”
In the next article I will cover some of the possible unintended consequences of the Smart Meter/Grid system that OG&E is currently implementing as well as some specific legal issues that must be addressed.