Back in 2007, when the Dutch government announced that all 7 million homes in the Netherlands would be equipped with smart meters by 2013, it anticipated little resistance. After all, who wouldn’t welcome a device that could save both energy and money? But consumers worried that such intelligent monitoring devices, which transmit power-usage information to the utility as frequently as every 15 minutes, would make them vulnerable to thieves, annoying marketers, and police investigations. They spoke out so strongly against these ”espionage meters” that the government made them optional.
A report released this past April by the New York City–based consulting company Accenture found that the Dutch are hardly alone. Of more than 9000 consumers polled in 17 countries, about one-third said they would be discouraged from using energy-management programs, such as smart metering, if it gave utilities greater access to data about their personal energy use. And in a comprehensive report on smart grid privacy released in September, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) compiled a list of scenarios that consumers fear if their energy data got into the wrong hands.
It all sounds less paranoid when you consider that each appliance—the refrigerator, kettle, toaster, washing machine—has its own energy fingerprint, or ”appliance load signature,” that a smart meter can read. Anyone who gets hold of this data gets a glimpse of exactly what appliances you use and how often you use them. But with a little clever engineering, utilities could protect consumer privacy without compromising the benefits of smart meters, say researchers at Toshiba Research Europe in Bristol, England...