Spies on the Side of Your House: Smart Meters

Recently, smart meters have been caught in the act of raising thermostat temperatures and cutting off electricity altogether.
Marcia Wendorf

Chances are that you have several smart meters attached to your home. One might be a smart electricity meter, another might be a smart gas meter, and a third might be a smart water meter. Besides homes, smart meters also monitor consumption in commercial and industrial facilities.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, as of 2019, there were over 94.8 million advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) units installed across the U.S. A 2019 European Commission DG Energy report anticipated that around 125 million smart electricity meters would be installed throughout the European Union by 2022.

What are smart meters?

Advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) systems measure, collect, and analyze energy and water usage, and the systems are comprised of hardware, software, communications, consumer energy displays and controllers, meter data management software, and supplier business systems. AMI is becoming part of larger "smart grid" initiatives.

Before AMI, automatic meter reading (AMR) systems allowed for only one-way communication — from the meter to a meter reader. AMI provides for two-way communication, allowing utilities to send information (and thus, instructions and commands) to your home. This information can include time-based pricing information, demand-response actions, or even remote service disconnects.

Smart meters communicate wirelessly via cellular communications, Wi-Fi, wireless ad hoc networks over Wi-Fi, wireless mesh networks, low power long-range wireless (LoRa), Wize (high radio penetration rate, open, using the frequency 169 MHz), ZigBee (low power, low data rate wireless), and Wi-SUN (Smart Utility Networks). Smart meters can also communicate via fixed wired connections such as power line carrier (PLC).

The beginning of smart meters

Smart meters were first developed by in 1972 by Greek-American inventor Theodore Paraskevakos, who was working for Boeing in Huntsville, Alabama. Paraskevakos is also responsible for inventing a system for transmitting electronic data through telephone lines, which formed the basis for the Caller ID system.

Smart meters couldn't have come at a better time for electric utilities, since deregulation during the 1970s and 1980s was hitting their bottom lines hard. By measuring electricity consumption in near real-time, electric utilities could adjust their prices based on when demand is highest, for example, charging more during the summer months and less during the late night hours.

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Another benefit to utilities was that smart meters eliminated the need for meter readers, people whose job was to tramp through yards to read customers' meters every month, thus reducing the utilities' labor costs. The benefit to customers, besides not having to open their doors to meter readers, was an end to estimated bills, which were universally hated.

Smart meters were given another boost by the Smart Grid Investment Grant (SGIG) program, which was part of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).

Utilities constantly tout the ability of smart meters to inform customers of their consumption information, which will help them manage their energy usage and reduce their energy bills. However, the reality is that many people not only don't access this information, they don't even know where on their homes their smart meters are located.

Indeed, a dissertation by a university researcher at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro found that customers generally did nothing to dial back their power usage during peak periods. A report from a parliamentary group in the UK suggested that people who have smart meters would only save an average of £11 annually on their energy bills, far less than the cost of installing a smart meter.

In the U.S., AMI adoption varies by state. Washington, D.C. has the highest AMI penetration, at 97 percent of all meters, and Nevada stands at 96 percent. Other states with high penetration of AMI are: California, Florida, Georgia, Maine, Michigan, Oklahoma, Texas, and Vermont.

Worldwide, the top smart meter manufacturers are Elster, GE Energy, Itron, Landis+Gyr, and Sensus. Landis+Gry was at the center of an internet storm this past week when the Daily Dot reported on a hacker who had exposed a dark secret.

War driving

In February 2021, Texas experienced a once-in-a-lifetime snowstorm which officially killed 151 people, and which led to controlled electricity blackouts across the state. While some areas retained their electrity, other areas were plunged into darkness and cold for up to a week.

When a Dallas-based white-hat hardware hacker and security researcher known as Hash, noticed that Austin Energy, a publicly-owned utility, refused to disclose which areas had been blacked out and which hadn't, citing "protected critical infrastructure information," Hash got to work.

Hash knew that the smart meters being used by Austin Energy and by other power companies across Texas were manufactured by Landis+Gyr. Hash also knew that the devices were transmitting data that included the duration, in seconds, in which no electricity was flowing through them.

Hash set out wardriving — going through various neighborhoods around Dallas with antennas mounted to his car, and reading the data emitted by the smart meters. Driving along one 30-mile stretch (48 km) of U.S. Route 75 which goes from Dallas to McKinney, Hash accessed the data of more than 7,000 smart meters operated by Oncor, the largest energy company in Texas.

In a video uploaded to YouTube, Hash overlaid his data, which included the number of days since the last power outage, and the GPS coordinates and unique ID of each smart meter, onto Google Maps. The data proved enlightening, and it confirmed a study that showed that areas housing minorities were more than four times as likely to suffer a blackout than primarily white areas.

Even more concerning was the fact that "Income status of areas did not appear to be a strong factor in the share of blackouts..." nor did the presence of hospitals or police and fire stations."

Thermostats with minds of their own

This month, some residents of Texas found their homes unexpectedly becoming warmer. They had opted in to a program that allowed their electric utility to remotely raise their thermostat's temperature. One resident told station KHOU that, "I wouldn't want anybody else controlling my things for me... If somebody else can manipulate this, I'm not for it."

This ability to remotely operate smart meters also has Hash worried. With recent ransomware attacks on gas pipelines and water treatment facilities, Hash told the Daily Dot that he fears that smart meters may become the next target of hackers, and that he is currently analyzing smart meters' remote shut-off mechanisms.

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