Some users say privacy at risk in power project

May 30, 2013 by  
Filed under Wind Energy Tips

Joe Bushell has a solar furnace in his backyard to help heat his 90-year-old home outside North Sydney.

He built a wind turbine that powers his ham radio set.

But he sure as heck doesn’t want anyone trying to guilt him into using less electricity.

Bushell has been a thorn in the side of Efficiency Nova Scotia and Nova Scotia Power ever since the pair started a program this spring sending out letters about every two months to 90,000 of the utility’s customers telling them how much electricity they consume compared to their neighbours.

“I’m all for efficient use of power,” the Lietches Creek resident said in a recent interview.

Bushell’s letter informed him he used about the same amount of power as his neighbours but 124 per cent more electricity than an efficient but similar-sized home.

“My home’s about 90 years old, so I’m not going to be able to compete with something that was built two days ago,” he said. “It’s very offensive.”

But what really bothers Bushell — a 60-year-old semi-retired recording engineer — is that NSP has handed over his personal information, including his name, address and how much electricity he’s using, to a third party without his consent.

“It offends me because when I have an agreement with a company, any company, especially a utility, to buy service, I don’t expect them to share that information with anybody else,” he said.

“I think it’s a very slippery slope.”

The letters are part of a three-year home energy project that Efficiency Nova Scotia launched in April to allow people to compare their home energy use with that in about 100 similar homes in their area.

The third party that put together the letters is Opower, a U.S. company that partners with utilities around the world to promote energy efficiency.

“It’s the first time in Canada that this has been done, but it’s been done in 80 different utilities around the world and (with) 15 million customers,” said Hugh Fraser of Efficiency Nova Scotia, an arm’s-length organization created by the province to help people reduce their electricity use.

The aim is to give people an idea of how their household electricity use shapes up against 100 other anonymous but similar homes in the same area, he said. The letters also gives tips on how to reduce energy consumption.

“What really is at play here is the idea of kind of a positive peer pressure and a little bit of healthy, gentle competition among people in your community,” Fraser said. “There’s no way to know who they are. It’s all aggregate information. It’s all anonymous.”

Opower sent out the letters for Efficiency Nova Scotia after NSP provided the company with its customer information. Opower had to guarantee it would keep the information confidential and secure, Fraser said.

“It’s never shared or never repurposed or anything like that,” he said. “It’s for your use only. Efficiency Nova Scotia never sees it.”

Efficiency Nova Scotia has only fielded a handful of complaints about the letters, Fraser said.

“We had six calls about privacy,” he said. “I’m not trying to sweep this under the rug. It’s a legitimate concern, and it’s absolutely one that we take seriously.”

NSP spokeswoman Neera Ritcey said there are strict contractual obligations in place to ensure Opower keeps the information confidential.

“We are required by legislation to support Efficiency Nova Scotia in fulfilling its duties in programs like this,” Ritcey said.

“The information was relayed under very strict conditions with confidentiality and non-disclosure obligations involved. They were provided for a very specific purpose, and protecting customers’ privacy is a priority. We’ve done a lot of due diligence on this.”

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