It was estimated by the US Department of Energy, that 8.2 million homes were left without power as a result of Hurricane Sandy.

Yet despite significant efforts to restore power to affected homes, there are reports that almost 150,000 homes were still without power two weeks after the hurricane. The impact of losing power in the words of those affected is that 'it's dark, it's frightening and it's freezing'.

Getting critical services restored is imperative, and yet any perceived delays resulted in a fierce response from citizens. In Connecticut for example, it was reported that utility workers were pelted with eggs and other objects because citizens felt the utility company was taking care of wealthier residents first.

What is very clear is that in the words of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is that the city needs to "not only rebuild, but rebuild stronger and smart". Such words clearly apply to the power grid not only in the United States, but are also echoed by approximately 700 million Indian citizens who at the end of July were left without power after the failure of three of the country's five electricity grids.

While there are significant technical and economical challenges with adopting some of the recommendations following Hurricane Sandy, for example burying power lines is estimated to cost $5.8 billion in Washington DC alone, the challenge is to effectively address natural events that occur with real irregularity.

However implementing a smart grid could reap benefits that could be realised even without a natural disaster, such as the management of peak demand for power. Following Hurricane Sandy, the utility Pepco, which serves Maryland and Washington DC, was able to use its smart meter deployment to improve resilience in the grid.

With 425,000 smart meters deployed, the company was able to use smart meters to improve the restoration of services by quickly being able to isolate impacted homes, and certainly quicker and more efficiently than having to send an engineer on site.

One customer said: “Sometimes a mere wind or rainstorm, or even on sunny days, we routinely lost power for a few hours. Finally, last year, Pepco installed some smart meters here and things have improved. Much less blackouts and, during Hurricane Sandy, we briefly lost power for a few minutes [about] six times but never a prolonged loss.”

So what is holding back the wide-scale deployment of such meters? There are many reasons: cost is often seen as a significant barrier. Yet such costs could potentially be offset by the ability to schedule the use of power during off-peak hours that is financially beneficial to not only the end-user, but also the utility company.

One significant concern that has generated real vitriol amongst smart meter critics is the issue of privacy, with reported cases of homeowners preventing smart meter installation engineers from entering their homes by gunpoint. Such meters do indeed have the potential to report on energy usage, and the specific appliances that are being run in the home.

This of course allows the operator to deduce the number of people in the home, when residents are at home, as well as other information that would be of interest to not only themselves but also other third parties. What's worse is that in some cases, the polling interval to the meter (e.g. how often the meter is asked for information) is set so low that researchers were recently able to deduce what film the homeowner was watching simply based on the brightness levels of particular scenes in the film!

Privacy is quite rightly a concern. It is therefore a critical requirement for the collation of any personal information to be done in a transparent fashion. In other words collecting data about the homeowner is done with their explicit consent, particularly if it is not required for critical operations (e.g. billing purposes).

This degree of transparency adheres to the White House Consumer Bill of rights, which provides a number of Fair Information Practice Principles, that include:

  • Individual Control: Consumers have a right to exercise control over what personal data companies collect from them and how they use it.
  • Transparency: Consumers have a right to easily understand and access information about privacy and security practices.

According to the European Commission's task force for smart grids (Expert Group 2: Regulatory Recommendations for data safety, data handling and data protection), "in Europe energy theft and privacy are the most important concerns related to smart grid implementation, in other parts of the world (e.g. in the US) it is energy theft and malevolent attacks that are the main concerns".

Whether you agree or disagree with that statement, one thing is clear – privacy concerns associated with the grid are significant, and research is uncovering more concerns with regularity. Therefore preserving privacy and ensuring that the implementation of privacy controls should not be based on where you live, but rather should be an imperative for all customers the world over.

Only until this is done will we dramatically improve the likelihood of a broader acceptance for the smart grid, and also dramatically improve our capability to respond and react to natural disasters the world over. 

Raj Samani is EMEA chief technology officer at McAfee and EMEA strategy advisor of the Cloud Security Alliance