My (not so) smart home, now and in the future

  • Written by Lorna Goulden, at 19-01-2016
    - Tuesday January 19, 2016

Part one: My smart meter

The very last day of 2015 was marked by a somewhat unexpected inconvenience. Inconvenient given that more time than was comfortable was spent standing in a cold hallway with wet hair, having jumped out of the shower to answer the doorbell. Unexpected (as I pointed out to the man who had just come to read our energy meter) because, well, we have a smart energy meter…

Smart energy

The friendly meter reader explained that he just needed to read the solar panel meter. “Hmm, not so smart then” I accidentally mused out loud and he proceeded to explain that indeed the meter’s should really be connected. As he then scrolled though the readings on the smart meter (“might as well take all the reading whilst I am here” . . . uhuh?). I detected a slight frown as he came across a number suspiciously similar to the one he had just read from the solar panel meter. Are they connected after all? The response was somewhat vague, so I guess I will only really know if he turns up again next year, given that the interface of our smart meter does not adequately reveal the mystery of the numbers it displays and is even more secretive about when, to whom and what information it is sending.

Not so smart

To be honest our relatively new smart meter has turned out to be rather a disappointment; no new insights or clarity on energy usage, or effective finger pointing at rogue energy slurpers, or other potentially exciting electrical goings-on. I imagine for example a smart meter that could detect and warn of a potential fire hazard short cicuit, sparking behind the walls, or more positively report back on the general health and safety of appliances owned or loaned - in a similar way that my Synology NAS dispays its system health as a rather reassuring big green tick, telling me that 'all is well'. There has also, so far, been no useful unravelling of the generally indecipherable energy bills which despite the introduction of solar panels and windmill shares seem quite determined to maintain their steady upwards trajectory. Our slightly-smarter house has not yet provided us with any noticeable new benefits – not even the much hoped for insight into our solar panels performance after a couple of years of secretly wondering if they were actually connected.

Not so private

Can I access our new smart meter and its regular transmission of data? Can I trace or match our energy consumption to a specific appliance or device. Can I subsequently fine-tune our domestic comfort to make a noticeable impact on our energy bills? Not easily (I am told) without an additional device, app or service to translate the data into a language or context that normal people like me can relate and react to. After checking the terms and conditions of a couple of possible ‘smart meter’ apps, and given my apparently not entirely unfounded caution regarding unknown organizations’ behind apps I decided that I wasn’t quite ready to give our energy usage data to an unknown third party in return for a free and more user-friendly interface to that data – for a utilisation that remains tantalisingly vague  – and let’s face it, there is no such thing as a free lunch given the privacy paradox once users become the product. A key reason incidentally for me to reject Google's learning thermometer Nest and their smoke alarm Nest Protect and opt instead to crowdfund the Point. Although I have yet to delve into Point's data vs privacy reality (customary Kickstarter delivery delay) what drew my attention was their 'softer take on home security' and the promise to provide an API to retrieve all updated data; a small step towards consumer data transparency perhaps? I am particularly interested to see how smart Point can be if not connected to the cloud. Hopefully its long awaited delivery will coincide with the launch of Dowse: The Privacy Hub for the Internet of Things, which aims to "bring individual awareness, preference, and empowered influence to the network/IoT.” Promising a potentially disruptive step fowards in favour of those who still value the privacy of their own home, as the Internet of Things comes knocking at the door with it's salesmans smile, tactfully omitting to mention that 80 percent of the most commonly used Internet of Things devices raised privacy concerns in a recent study by HP.

Who do you trust?

And it seems I may not be alone in assuming that data gathered by smart devices, especially in the home, is personal data, and then questioning who to trust it to. Research findings for TRUSTe in the U.S. and Great Britain indicate a high percentage of consumers are concerned about the type of information being collected by smart devices and only 22% of U.S. internet users and 18% of British internet users felt that the benefits of smart devices outweighed any privacy concerns. Not surprising perhaps that TRUSTe also group energy companies along with government and Ad companies as the organizations we are least comfortable sharing personal data from our smart devices with, hotly followed by supermarkets, insurance companies and our Boss.   

Anonymous

I was reminded of a presentation I enjoyed a few months back by an intriguing hacker at a local Internet of Thing meetup. After blocking the attempted installation of a smart meter in his own home ‘Stef from Budapest’ satisfied his natural hacker’s curiosity by investigating the abandoned device to find out what made it so “smart”. With the help of a $10 USB TV tuner and free software he was able to capture a signal emitting from the meter (and incidentally any of his neighbours, had he been so inclined). Even more impressive, in a creepy kind of way, he explained the steps needed to extract more meaningful data from the random squiggles showing on the screen – the low power radio signals he was intercepting. In part enabled by an open document published online (prEN nnnn-1:2013) prepared by the Technical Committee CEN/TC 294 “Communication systems for meters and remote reading of meters outlining the Smart Energy Profile Standard any device should apply to be able to read a smart meter. . . readily available technology and equally accessible deciphering data for the technically adept. One would hope that the data is encrypted and anonymised during transmission and storage. Although according to Stef there is actually no such thing as anonymised data – by the time data is truly anonymised it will be rendered entirely useless. Indeed just last year MIT researchers demonstrated how they could identify ‘anonymous’ people from relatively few bits of data.  

Technology graveyard

I was also reminded about my own attempt to access our real-time analogue energy meter data a few years back by installing a deceptively simple device called the YouLess energy meter, which would visually monitor the turning of the analogue wheel.

Youless On Meter

However, the novelty of having that information displayed in an app wore off quickly, very quickly, and meaningful usefulness failed to emerge. Especially when the device lost it’s connection to the Internet and was not smart enough to inform us, creating a big gap in our data log. Our YouLess device quickly joined the technology graveyard growing in the attic, yet another out-dated or obsolete device that either failed to maintain longevity or failed to live up to its value promise. Which begs the question, what value does a smart meter really provide ... to a consumer? Or more specifically what do we actually need or want? Will our lives be noticeably improved once we know how much energy it takes to boil an egg, charge an iPhone, or ring the doorbell? Which is incidentally far more granular information than any current smart meter alone can provide.

Say we were successful in raising awareness of our own specific energy consumption patterns, would this guide us towards more efficient behaviour – reducing energy consumption and positively impacting the environment (the prevailing value propositions presented by energy companies eager to install their smart meters in our homes, beyond more convenient and transparent billing) – and could we then conceivably disconnect the smartness, the data gathering and sharing, once our behaviour has shifted and these consumption efficiency benefits gained? Probably not, given that researchers from the Kellog School of Management cite that the popular goal of smart meter gathered data is to enable smarter pricing strategies and a smoother electricity supply chain, and this apparently only brings value to the energy company, not to the consumer or (surprisingly) to the environment. There are of course contrasting reports that maintain that smart meters with smart interfaces (as part of a smart energy grid) will actively steer us towards reducing our energy bills with a potential for  2-3 per cent reduction (eg Ericsson, Trinseo, Energy.gov ) - but the smart meter alone will not reduce our energy bill or energy consumption, benefits will only come when we start paying attention to the data and learn how to act upon it. And as Scott Byrom, utilities manager at moneysupermarket.com points out "We found that people are fascinated by how much turning on their kettle costs for the first week but they soon lose interest and stop looking at it."

Utility death spiral

I noted that our new smart meter had done nothing yet to improve my general mistrust of the residential energy monopoly industry; a possible indication of an industry ripe for disruption? Some believe that the coming of the “utility death spiral” is inevitable: "In such a scenario, utilities that don’t actively invest in distributed generation and find new ways to engage their customers will wither away and die." And as possible alternatives loom on the horizon such as Tesla’s Battery for the home, amongst others, I for one am more than ready to leap away from the current consumer energy experience, characterised by an experience of lack of transparency, lack of autonomy and a lack of service.

A smarter energy future

So what might my smart energy future entail? Perhaps it will feature a Prêt-à-Loger inspired adaptable "skin" made of solar panels and smart technology (winner Solar Decathlon Europe 2014) which would fit rather well in my particular context. A more inspiring thought from a consumer’s perspective is to eradicate the need to be locked-in to a centralized energy grid paradigm whilst also playing a more active role in CO2 reduction. Even more inspiring would be the introduction of an entirely new set of (renewable) energy related benefits such as free fuelling of personal (autonomous) transportation or even sharing surplus energy with extended family, friends or other beneficiaries that we are able to choose (bearing in mind this sustains the need for a smart grid - but with an entirely difference purpose, goal and value chain dynamics). Maybe not so far fetched either if Ray Kurtzweil’s prediction that solar power, driven by exponentially-increasing nanotechnology, will satisfy the entire world's need for energy in less than twenty years is to be believed. Ultimately negating or transforming the ownership, role and value of the smart grid and smart meter data ... now that is ‘smart’.