“Power is Information”!?

“Power is Information” is the corporate motto of Metrix, which describes itself on its website as “the leading electricity meter owner and operator in the Greater Auckland region”.

Metrix itself is owned by Mighty River Power, the State Owned Enterprise that the NZ government is planning to sell, despite strong public opposition.  (One community group, Switch Off Mercury Energy has started a website (http://www.switchoffmercuryenergy.org/)  and Facebook page (www.facebook.com/SwitchOffMercuryEnergy) to encourage customers of Mercury Energy, which is another subsidiary of Mighty River Power, to change to another electricity company and thereby make Mighty River Power a less attractive proposition for investors and thereby stop the sale of this state asset. )

Leaving aside the question of who owns Metrix now, and who may own it in the future, Metrix’s site states that “Metrix also manages non-half hour meter reading services”. By implication this suggests that the “smart meter” network that is owned and operated by Metrix is sending information about customers’ electricity use back to the company every thirty minutes.  Which brings us back to the company motto “Power is Information”.

Overseas, part of the impetus for utility companies making the investment in “smart meters” and the “smart grid” has been the potential to gather additional data about their customers’ electricity use, identify periods of peak demand more accurately – and develop differentiated tariffs for those times when there is highest demand for electricity.  In practice, this has the potential to mean that electricity companies put a premium on the price of electricity at the times of the day when it is most needed – such as when people arrive home from work and start cooking dinner, and turning on heaters etc in the winter. This is great for electricity companies, but not so great for families that are already struggling with high power bills.  (In NZ over the past few years, median electricity prices have been rising at almost twice the rate of the average hourly wage (See: http://switchoffmercuryenergy.org/category/campaign/ ).

There are also privacy concerns about the use of “smart meters” to gather information about customers’ electricity use.  Data about electricity use could be used to infer patterns of activity in a household, including when people are at home or not at home, what appliances they use at certain times of the day etc.

If this data is intercepted in transit (or if there is a problem with security within any company that handles data related to electricity use) the potential for misuse of this data – such as by criminals who might plan burglaries at times when customers are not at home – could have serious consequences for the householder.

Even if there are no data security breaches we might also ask, should a company like Metrix, which is owned by a State Owned Enterprise, be allowed to gather this sort of detailed information about what their customers are doing in the privacy of their own homes?  (Overtones of “Big Brother”, anyone?)

If Metrix’s owner Mighty River Power is privatised, as the government would like to do, its new owner(s) might be a multinational corporation, or perhaps a company owned by a foreign government. (One of China’s SOE’s China Huadian’s Corp recently invested $232 million to build a new power station near Moscow.

See: http://www.cnbc.com/id/47512207/Top_10_Countries_for_Chinese_Investments?slide=3 )

Remember Metrix’s slogan: “Power is Information”?  They are quite “in your face” about it, really.

Should any company, regardless of its ownership, be allowed to install technology into people’s homes that can be used to gather information about their daily activities?