Understanding consumer fears about smart grid

Kathleen Wolf Davis | Dec 27, 2012



There’s an odd psychological dichotomy at play with intelligent power infrastructure that confuses power industry insiders: Why do consumers who regularly use more personal technology (such as smartphones) without a second thought become preoccupied with what the power company will know about them when smarter meters and thermostats come more directly into play? Why do these people seem perfectly OK with their phones tracking who they call, where they are and what they text but not simple load management numbers about their electric consumption? 

I posed a few of these questions to Dr. Larry D. Rosen, a professor, speaker and research consultant with California State University in Dominguez Hills. Dr. Rosen works with the George Marsh Applied Cognition Laboratory, which researches a spectrum of psychological sub-disciplines including cognitive, clinical, experimental and social. The lab maintains a distinct focus on modern technology and its impact on the human mind.

Posed the dichotomy question, Dr. Rosen pointed to the human factor as the major difference.

“From all of my research, we have seen that people are mostly using technology for communication and social interaction. Their phones are a major source of connection for them, and connection is a basic human need,” he said.

Indeed, according to Rosen, the major difference in fear between smartphones and smart meters may be tied to our deepest subconscious; the phone is all about connecting. And, for that connection, that human contact, we’re willing to sacrifice privacy—something that may not be said for smart meters.

“As a species, we are willing to give up quite a bit of ourselves and our privacy for a feeling of being connected,” he added.

Smartphones make people feel connected and feed that need. Other smart technologies do not: smart meters, QR codes, augmented reality, for example.

“[Non-social] smart technologies are fantastic, but, as we have seen, they are not the items that this generation is willing to embrace. It has been interesting to watch how myriad technologies, such as QR codes, are not being embraced. And, that’s all because these technologies do not have a communication and connection component,” he added.

And, while utilities may argue that smart meters and interactive consumer widgets have a big communication component to them, the counter argument would be that this is all about choices in communication—namely, does your consumer really want to talk to you?

“In this era of connective technologies, people are leery of how any other technology is going to be used,” he said, noting that, while individuals are happy to let people they trust (namely, friends) track them by posting on Facebook, those people don’t consider utilities and companies their friends. Utilities are not their “chosen virtual connections,” as Rosen labeled the difference.

Can utilities learn from smartphones in this arena? Is there a lesson in how to package communication to make smart meters and more intelligent utility technology more palatable to the customer?

Well, yes, but Rosen warns it will be an uphill battle. Without that chosen virtual connection, utilities face being lumped in with the negatives of updated technology: privacy issues from credit card companies and big ticket news items like hacking being in the forefront of the consumer’s brain.  But, Rosen suggests taking that human connection into account and working it.

“[Getting acceptance] is going to be difficult unless there is some connection with friends, real or virtual,” he suggested.

Rosen’s advice to gain growing consumer acceptance of smart utility technology is simple. First, remember that fear can be overcome with gain. So, think money (as utilities like Reliant are doing with their push for “free nights and weekends”). Look to cell phone companies for examples of this step. Second, connect to the friendship network of the consumer’s choosing to make it more acceptable. Tie into that basic human need to interact, and, finally, have a little patience.

Don’t take the fact that a consumer loves his more-intrusive cell phone and hates his less-intrusive smart meter personally. It’s not a choice; it’s a natural response from the very basic depths of the human psyche. To paraphrase the old dating break-up line: It’s really not you. It’s him.

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Apples and Oranges

I don't fear RF, I own and use a smart phone.  Occasionally I willl turn on the GPS, when I want to use a navigation app.  When I choose to contact friends, family, businesses, I use my smart phone.  I have a Facebook account, but am not a big fan, nor do I spend time and effort updating it.  When I realized how little television I was watching and how much i had to pay for cable, I made the decision to cut off service.  I kept the cable internet, and use the money I used to pay for cable TV, to have someone take care of my yard twice a month.

These decisions are mine to make.  When I want to call a friend or relative, or send a text message, I am not doing this to learn their energy use patterns.  And a friend or relative would not install a smart meter on my house, to record my electricity use patterns, without my permission, and charge me for it.

If the power company simply wanted to save money by coordinating production with demand for electricity, they could have installed devices to measure demand for a group of customers and saved 3-5%.  But, they just had to go that last mile, and actually get inside our homes.  Uninvited.  Then, transmit our interval data via RF, to other locations.  There are well-established signatures for hundreds of different appliances and electronic devices.

Knowing which residents own plasma TVs, home security systems, garage door openers, and which homes are unoccupied, is useful for criminals.  And knowing who is using grow-lamps for marijuana might be useful for law enforcement.  But how often do we learn that a "secure" banking system or government facility has been hacked?  And just what will become of all the utility data collected?  Customer information has monetary value:  our data are a commodity, which will be sold to appliance manufacturers, etc.  This isn't ethical or moral.  Is it legal?

There was a Supreme Court decision recently, which ruled that installing a GPS tracking device on the car of a known criminal, was illegal, because a warrant had not been obtained.  Said criminal had a "reasonable expectation of privacy" in his private automobile.  It is unfortunate that law-abiding citizens are not afforded the same rights under Amendment IV of the US Constitution, as are criminals.

I have a reasonable expectation of privacy inside my home, with regard to my personal papers and effects.  And it is my business alone when I choose to use my oven, A/C, computer, or anything else I legally own.  The power company is not trying to save me money, by imposing mandatory monitoring of my electricity usage.  What business in their right mind would want people to purchase less of what they produce?  Answer:  they don't.  They simply want to charge more for it, depending on when we need to use it.

For this, we can blame our State and Federal Legislators, the Administration, and the unelected bureaucrats appointed by said Administration.  Ultimately, all of this is being done to accommodate solar and wind energy (very low energy and power density--very little bang for the buck), and to accommodate all of those electric vehicles.  They're selling like hotcakes, don't you know?  And all of these things must be paid for, propped up, by taxpayers and rate payers.

It has nothing to do with assisting low-income people who can't afford their electricity.  There is a charge every month on my power bill:  Universal Energy Charge.  Believe me, it is far less than all of the other charges for Green Crap, Energy Efficiency Charge, and some others.

Whatever became of our right to simply be left alone?  The biggest difference between a smart phone and a smart meter is this:  I can always turn off my smart phone.

Wendy Ellis, Las Vegas NV

Familiarity breeds acceptance

Smartphones and the internet have been around long enough that people have gotten over their fears. Remember back in the late '90s when everybody was afraid to enter their credit card number on a website? Now everybody does it with out a second thought. Smart meters are at a very early stage of deployment. Like any new technology they take some getting used to. Right now, most people see them as a way for utilities to charge them more for their electric use, rather than as a tool in managing it.

         Milton Scritsmier

         Boulder, CO


Connections with customers are not about the meter

Interesting article.  I agree that most people don't want to "friend" their utility but I believe Dr. Rosen’s interpretation is too simplistic.  Not all smart meter opponents care about the same issues but media coverage and analysis tends to suggest a shared perspective.

  1. Groups like Josh Hart’s stopsmartmeters.org care about the environment and do, in fact, want to eliminate wireless networks used for mobile phones and computers.  They view meters as the Trojan Horse because people don’t care about them as much. If they succeed in getting regulators to say EMF poses a danger then they can go after the cell phone towers.
  2. Most people don’t worry that the utility wants to track their toaster and hair drying habits. Those who do often conflate utilities with government and are fearful of government intrusion or overreach on a wide variety of topics.
  3. A third wing includes politically-motivated citizens who believe climate change is a hoax and are opposed to collective investment in general (especially anything that might benefit low-income residents). 
  4.  In an ironic twist, consumer advocates who worry about low-income people paying FOR collective investment will sometimes join forces with those who don’t want the vulnerable to be subsidized.
  5.  Another issue not covered in the article centers around who benefits from monetized data.  The recent uproar at Instagram was over the company’s plan to sell their users’ creative work without their permission or compensation.  Profit-sharing models might be worth exploring.


Utilities can leverage the power of human connection if they use targeted and personalized communication vehicles, train their customer service reps well, employ more face-to-face opportunities to listen to consumers, and partner with trusted community-based organizations who reflect the range of customer motivations and priorities. 

Judith Schwartz, To the Point


The article is based on the assumption that the people who are concerned about meter data privacy are also owners of smart phones.  This is quite an assumption.