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    How to do public engagement on energy and privacy

    By Jennifer Love, on 8 June 2011

    I forgot to pack my socks. Given that this is Cheltenham Science Festival, as I walked to the sock shop I envisioned a long queue of professors and graduate students who had also forgotten to pack their socks. Alas, I was the sole. The scientists at this festival are far too cool for that. Directed by UCL’s own Mark Lythgoe, who appears to be the height of cool, the aim of this festival is to get current science, and its associated issues, out into the public sphere.

    An event worth highlighting for its excellent quality is ‘Energy – the smart way?’. In essence, it was an introduction to the need for, possible design of and social implications of ‘smart grids’ and ‘smart meters’ to monitor and control our energy use. Former UCL PhD student Tony Rooke, now working a short walk along Euston Road at Logica, was one of the three panelists.  All agreed that the ‘smart grid’, broadly meaning a grid in which there is multi-directional information and power flow, is absolutely essential if we are to meet our carbon targets, but it was pointed out that rolling out smart meters without knowing the architecture of the smart grid is possibly a mistake.

    Near the start, the audience were asked to raise a hand if they would accept having a smart meter installed in their home. Most were fine with it, although this audience was obviously biased, having rocked up in the first place. We were then informed of some behaviours that real-time electricity use can reveal or predict: whether occupants take baths or showers, approximate age of children, whether they are left alone, whether the house is usually empty on certain days… (shiver)

    The point of the talk was to highlight that compromises need to be made if we are to implement smart systems.. For example, the more frequently home power is measured, the more can be learned about our energy habits and therefore the better the demand-side management strategies can be – but on the other hand, the higher the danger that our data falling into the wrong hands could violate our security. Similarly, giving companies power to switch off our power remotely (or hackers chance to infect the house-to-house network with the same kinds of ‘worms’ that travel over the internet) raises a huge need for strict regulation.

    The audience were then asked to raise a hand if they still didn’t mind having a smart meter installed. Some people had become uneasy. The panel pointed out the need to have this discussion now rather than have the issues dawn on people halfway through a roll-out of smart meters, as was the case in the Netherlands, where the roll-out programme had to be stalled due to public uproar.

    What I found so impressive about this event was the engagement with social issues such as public perception of smart technologies – not as an aside, but as the focus. I agree with the panelists that people need to thrash out the issues now. However, I would love to turn this kind of event into one that reached the non-scientific, non-energy-aware public. I talked to the chair of the event about this and he agreed. So if you want to get involved, let me know and we’ll see what we can come up with…