Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Energy storage data: Market Opportunity and Public Menace

Today, energy storage seems valuable, costly and challenging. In comparison, the value, cost and challenges of the associated data may seem negligible. A similar view informed the development of telecoms networks in the 1980s: connectivity was valuable, costly and challenging, and the network operators took little interest in the information carried. Then as connectivity prices came down, the telcos discovered, too late, that the sustained value was in the information; the tweets, the postings and the Google adverts.

The estimated flotation price of Facebook at around 90 billion dollars shows just how massively the network operators missed the trick. The analogy with energy storage data is very imperfect, but it illustrates one extreme possibility: even if kitchen-sink nuclear fusion were to make energy as good as free, there might still be a lively market in the information associated with energy use.
We don’t yet know the final detail of the information that will be associated with energy storage: but we can to make some useful guesses. Energy storage is likely to generate information about the past and present behaviour of whatever or whoever is using it: about people, families, businesses, town councils, motor cars, washing machines and wind turbines. That information in turn will generate information about those users’ future behaviour, needs or intentions.
There will be lots of information. Each energy store will have its own tale to tell about its particular corner of the world. There will be very many storage units. Even at the end of 2009, there were over thirty-one million energy storage units in the UK, each with a design capacity of about 1 kilowatt-hour, installed in the motor cars on our roads. There will be more.
And just as there will be lots of different entities creating storage information, there will be lots of parties with reasons for accessing it. We can guess at who they will be.
There will be legitimate demands for the information: firstly from the energy markets into which the storage is embedded. Whatever the market structure, an energy store acts as both supplier and generator, and in a functional market, its owner will need to have the information necessary for making good business in both of those roles.
Another legitimate demand for storage information will be from the forces of law and order. When storage is on a domestic scale (as for example in the electric motor car), its capacity for revealing forensic information is significant. We’ve seen how smart metering information was hacked at Discovergy, yielding information allegedly down to the level of what television channel a household was watching. Even if storage information is more of a blunt instrument, there are digital forensics methods which can combine huge volumes of such seemingly vague data, to deliver results with pinpoint accuracy. I expect that just as the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act of 2001 sets out requirements for the retention and disclosure of communications information, future legislation will oblige those responsible for energy storage information to retain it and to disclose it when required by the police. That will, by the way, be a business opportunity for somebody: the Home Office pays good rates for that sort of information.
The possibilities for exploiting that information will be even greater where evidential standards of rigour are not required. I expect that a discreet government agency will, legitimately but inadmissibly, be taking steps to acquire our energy storage data and to exploit it ruthlessly in securing our homeland.
Then there will be commercial targeting: using energy flow lifestyle information to target advertising or sales messaging.
And of course, there’s my grown-up son who wants to check that I’m not up to mischief, and the burglar who wants to know when I’m at home, and the stalker, and the jealous partner, and the political canvasser. All of these people would like to access my storage information, with various degrees of mischievous intent.
There’s real public concern about this sort of thing. A colleague from DECC took a taxi ride the other day, and made the mistake of telling the driver that he was working on a compulsory smart metering scheme. I won’t repeat the driver’s actual words: suffice it to say that his views on the matter were very far from those of Her Majesty’s Government. Nobody is talking about compulsory energy storage systems, yet, so unless the public’s reasonable concerns are addressed, information privacy may be as great an obstacle to adoption as any.

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