Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Keep the meter readers

As a former meter reader, I find it regretful to see that numerous utility companies are phasing out these important jobs. Traditionally an entry-level avocation, many career gas, power and water personnel began initially as meter readers, learning the ropes of their trades by inspecting every corner of the system and getting to know the grids as well as the back of their hands.

Meter readers often walk eight to 12 miles a day. While on foot, they usually see much more than car-bound employees do, sometimes noticing crucial infrastructure issues such as a service box or sewer top caving in, dead tree branches leaning against power lines or a strong scent of gas emanating from the street.

By eliminating these key jobs, our utility companies will no longer have these warriors watching out for us in such close ways. Not only that, but with the sudden push to "smart grid" metering, our Idaho public utility commissioners would be wise to ensure that these new systems are highly hacker-resistant before committing to full implementation. For instance, imagine an enemy breaking into the grid to shut down the complete configuration, causing long-term damage to power lines, substations and even home electrical systems.

This is not far-fetched, as nefarious hackers have already infected various financial institutions, global security systems and millions of personal computers. Unlike old-style meters, smart grid meters are susceptible to online attacks.

Recently, precocious and prolific blogger Ran Prieur made a related observation, "Did pirates have to protect their wooden legs from cyber attack? Do slide rules get viruses? No! But medical implants are now on the same path as Microsoft Windows and the tech system as a whole: adding more complexity, and creating more openings for failure, which can be patched only with more complexity at greater expense."

Jim Banholzer


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