CitizenWatt and the Power of Community

Depending upon where you live in the world, the chances are that your national or local government, or your utility company, has smart meters on their agenda. The idea is that these network-connected energy meters for your gas and electricity supply will allow greater control of energy usage and lead to lower costs through more efficient use of that energy. Bold plans have been advanced for meters that exert control over your higher-power appliances such as water heaters, washing machines, or home heating systems, able to turn them off or on depending on the time of day, spot price of energy, or load on the grid as a whole.

These devices are not without controversy though. Privacy concerns for example, centred on the amount of information about individuals that could be gleaned from the data they collect. Or security, that a vulnerability in an internet-connected electronic device fitted to millions of homes and with control over high-power appliances could be catastrophic if successfully exploited.

In a small area of Paris, they are trying to reap some of the benefits of smart meters for a community without some of those risks. CitizenWatt (French language, Google Translate link) is an open-source smart energy monitor that provides some of the benefits of a smart meter while allowing its owner to retain control of the data it generates by sharing data only with their consent. The entire project was born of an association between Citoyens Capteurs (Citizen Sensors, French language, Google Translate link), the hackEns (French language, Google Translate link) hackspace, the Fabelier FabLab, and the City of Paris.

The CitizenWatt system comprises an electricity sensor and a base station. The sensor is a simple battery-powered device that takes the output from a current transformer clamped onto the electricity supply cable and feeds it via an ATMEGA8 microcontroller to a 2.4GHz RF link. The base station is a Raspberry Pi which retrieves the data from the RF, stores it, and allows the user to view it through a web interface. Both the sensor code and hardware files, and the files for the Raspberry Pi base station are freely available on GitHub.

In keeping with the open nature on their project, the CitizenWatt team organised a series of events at which the families who were part of their trial in a Paris suburb were given the chance to build their own sensor boards, for many of them the first time they had handled a soldering iron.

We have seen quite a few smart meters on these pages over the years. There is this one based on a Spark Core, this one based on an ESP8266, and this one provided by a utility company, the data of which can be accessed. CitizenWatt is a worthy project to join them in its own right, but its involvement of a local community of non-makers is what sets it apart. We applad this aspect of the project, and we wish we saw more like it.

28 thoughts on “CitizenWatt and the Power of Community

    1. Yes the emon project provided my “smart” meter with a large chunk of its functionality and I am deeply endebted? to the work in the emon comunity.

      our local poli was spruking the voluntry roll out of smart meters in my town in a couple of months time.

      Measuring energy use by a utility company is a vital part of effectively manageing the network – yes they are in it to make as much money as they can but untill you start trying to manage your own generation and consumption do you realise how much effort goes into providing basically as much power as I want when I want it.

      we want good management of resources but we are afraid of invasion of privacy which is what is needed to provide the data to effectivily anage the resource – we cant cant have one without the other.

      1. It depends on who’s interest the monitoring companies are acting in. Do they want you to have the best service and use energy most efficiently or do they want to optimize their costs and have a minimal service with more dropouts? Secondarily, what else would they do with the data. This can be very invasive deducing your life patterns – wake up and sleep times, when you are home or away, how often you open the fridge or take a shower,….

    2. Good point. This project uses their library, though not their hardware. The involvement of the Parisian community in the project is what makes it a bit different though.

  1. Interesting, but I’m not conceived how compatible open source, and home shop constructed controls are with privacy, safety, and security. Not only does many need to be monitoring for any flaws that show up in the open source, the users have to be on the ball getting their equipment updated.. Even if home shop constructed equipment is subject to inspection, such inspection is subject to the honesty of the energy user. No doubt gas systems will be limited to monitoring net consumption.

    1. Yeah. Closed source Internet of Things is definitely better. Oh, wait….

      Put more bluntly, I’m certain Open (better Free) is the _only_ way that has a chance of providing relative security. Because Free sides with the user, who at the end is the most involved stakeholder for security.

  2. The whole “control” concept is wrong, imho. The desirability of demand for the supplier and network should be broadcast to every consumer station as real-time formed price (monetary price) of electricity at present time. This information should be available in human readable form, but also as information that smart appliances, or home control servers, could use to decide if it is better to stay on or switch off, or perhaps to lower their power consumption if they have the option, and all that decisioning based on settings their owner (or whoever pays electricity bills) put in. There should be no upper limit to the price – that way power company can exert hard control on network load, but there should be a “grace” level of power spending per household to avoid “gentrification” effect – that few rich bid everyone else out into dark by mere fact that they can afford to be wasteful with energy. Or perhaps the price could have individual rise rate based on history average of user’s responsiveness to price rise.

    So, that would sort out the load balancing, promote individual investment in energy efficiency, and provide insight into unmet energy needs (what is base load that people need even if it is expensive), and almost all of it without privacy violation, except for the fact that power bill reveal your financial well-being to power company.

    1. Here, in Poland, most older buildings have traditional meters, that need to be read manually by company. Energy costs per kilowatt are the same for everyone with older meter. Companies read those meters once every few months and calculate the power consumption average for the next 3-6 months. So we pay not for energy we actually used but for energy they expected to be used. So if I used more energy than they expected, I’ll pay the difference with the first bill from new set, and following bills will be adjusted because they will expect that I’ll be using more energy. If I use less than they expected, the next set of bills will be adjusted accordingly. I might even get one month with no payment to cover the difference.

      Newer meters have separate counters for day and night, because energy at night is cheaper. There is another method still. My friend pays for 100kWh and his meter will let him use those 100kWh. When the limit is reached, meter shuts down the power to his house. He of course gets notification via text message before he reaches limit so he can buy more energy without interruptions in service.

      The best way to deal with smart meters and utility companies is to make your own energy with wind turbines and sell energy to them…

      1. Same here in France, which was a motivation for the project.

        French electricity company are also pushing new “smart” meters, which would be able to send the energy consumption remotely, and eventually shut the electricity if too much power is used, but they are kind of blackboxes at the moment, without any warranty on how often will the measurements be done and sent or how they could control your electricity access remotely.

        Experiments by the CNIL (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commission_nationale_de_l'informatique_et_des_libert%C3%A9s) emphasized that electricity consumption data are truely personal, more that one would think at first, revealing the intimate life of the house (basically, when people are at home, but also which kind of appliances are running, how old are they, and so on, if you have fine enough measurements).

        We wanted to give it a try and see how far we could go as a community. Proving that non-makers citizen could actually be interested in maker movement, and build on their own (with the help of makers), a measurement device to control their electricity consumption from the beginning.

        Disclaimer: Am Phyks from hackEns, worked on the project.

    2. This is a lovely, Utopian viewpoint but as with so many things the playing field is never level. Our local electric company (midwestern US region) offers optional smart monitoring – with the fine-print catch that they are allowed to shut off your electric power completely for up to 8 hours to balance the load.

      You can bet that their CEO’s mansion won’t be one of the ones turned off, and I can’t imagine the horrors of someone with medical problems sweltering in the dark during one of our blistering summers while the golf course pumps churn on.

      They’re mystified why nobody takes the option.

    3. A fine, Utopian notion but it presumes a level playing field which is seldom the case.

      Here in the Midwestern US the local electric company offers a smart supply system – with the (fine-print) catch that they can turn your electric supply off completely for up to 8 hours to balance the load during peak periods.

      You can bet that their CEO won’t be blacked-out anytime soon, and I can’t imagine the misery of someone with a medical condition and no cooling at all during one of our sweltering summers while the sprinkler pumps at the country club churn on.

      FWIW the company is mystified why nobody adopts their service.

      1. It’s not that draconian. There are some business like commercial greenhouses running vast arrays of Gro-Lamps that can take an outage like that without much impact and are happy to get a prefered rate to do so. Would you do it for your home – no, but that’s not the market these rates are aimed at.

  3. Despite resistance these meters will take over because apparently it is getting more difficult for utilities to source mechanical ones.

    As for demand management, I lived for a time in a district that used this back in the Seventies, and frankly it was transparent. It was my understanding that the system used there transmitted a delay signal only, and that timing was local. In other words any cut-off signal illicitly sent would have to be repeated indefinitely to cause trouble, and I had a manual override available, (although using it caused billing to revert to the premium rate) if anything went wrong.

  4. this got me thinking whether it is possible to sniff crypto keys using side-channel power analysis attacks from a smart meter reading your houses power consumption

    anyone care to see if the nsa is inside every smart meter?

    1. That is a truly scary thought. However, the ability of hackers to study things that are attached to the side of their houses is pretty unlimited so no doubt the attack would eventually come to light, and then the power company would be in a world of hurt, assuming The Constitution is still in effect.

      1. There’s a lot of vectors for rogue agents to inject a compromised device in the chain. You can either control the power company in which case you have total impunity. Taking a step back you can control the hardware manufacturer that manufactures the devices. Or you can inject naughty bits into the chips that vendor is sourcing. I doubt anyone along that chain is actually decapping chips and checking to make sure everything is doing only what it is supposed to… even a bug hidden in the White House can take many years to find! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Thing_(listening_device)

          1. Depends on how deeply the payload is embedded… an oversized plastic chip package’s actual silicon could take up maybe 10% of the actual space inside the package. Stuffing another subcircuit somewhere inside that plastic, tapping a few bond wires, designing a tiny antenna that only wakes up the subcircuit when hit with the exact frequency necessary to self-power (you could even tap the system power!)…. sounds like a fun weekend project for someone with very steady hands and some acid :)

  5. Just wait until Google agrees to pay your corrupt local politicians for the right to install mandatory “smart” meters in your neighborhood. The leash just keeps getting shorter, doesn’t it Comrade?

    1. The whole of our state (Victoria Australia) was forced to pay to have SmartMeters a few years ago.

      Gone are the days where your solar production would be used as a credit against your final bill, at the same rate per hour that you get charged for electricity.

      The Feed In Tariff (FIT), as successively been reduced, so that the average is now around 6c (AU) per kwH, which on the whole is far far less than the wholesale price of electricity during the hours of daylight.

      A current graph of demand for Victoria can be seen here

      http://www.aemo.com.au/Electricity/Data/Price-and-Demand/Price-and-Demand-Graphs/Current-Dispatch-Interval-Price-and-Demand-Graph-VIC

      This means its no longer economically viable to install domestic PV to generate more power than you want to use yourself.

      However with the advent of new battery technologies, there is starting to be a move towards having a battery pack that attempt to give you net zero usage, without being totally off the gird.

      Because power taken from your own battery, can effectively be priced at the cost to buy it off the grid e.g. 40c (AU) per kWH.

      There are some interesting articles, about how the current pricing model and smartmeters etc are actually acting against the long term interest of the power companies

      http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/backgroundbriefing/the-big-disconnect/6915554

      BTW. On a totally different subject, there is some SDR code to snoop on smart meter data transmissions (depending on what model you have)
      However as the meters often form a mesh network, it may not be possible to know whether the data your meter is sending, is its own data or your neighbor’s data.
      As I don’t know if its possible to know the network ID of your own meter, as it may not be marked on an accessible part of the meter

        1. It does not appear to be illegal here.

          Companies are actively promoting their solar inverter systems as being “battery ready”

          Of course any system needs to be certified to be connected to the grid at all. So legally you can’t just make your own system which stores solar power and feeds it into your home when you are not generating enough solar power.

          However I’m sure it would be technically possible to design a system that never exported any power, and purely generated power on demand via solar and batteries.

          I guess this would basically be the solar panels constantly charging the batteries via a charge controller, to main max power from the panels (as they have a non linear voltage / current curve), and powering a demand driven inverter from the batteries.

  6. Not exactly cryptic sniffing, but if you are able to run accurate measurements at some kHz, you can identify power adapters patterns in your electric consumption and guess which devices are on, and an estimate of their generation / age. There are plenty of academic papers on it.

    With our current resolution (about 1Hz), we can still distinguish patterns from major devices such as fridge / washing machine or heaters. Looking at the graphs we can produce, there is already a lot of the house intimate life which is exposed, and we found out it was much more that people would have thought. Typical stuff ranges from time at home to “why did you cook at 2am yesterday?”.

    Another thing I read about, but cannot find back the reference, is that if your measure is accurate enough, you can guess which TV channel is being watched. Ads come with brighter images and higher sound levels, which reflects in power consumption.

  7. I doubt that kHz resolution sniffing would be possible. I suspect that the power supplies in most devices have a storage capacity of tens if not hundreds of milliseconds, to overcome network supply voltage variations and glitches.

    So you’d only be able to get perhaps 1 second accuracy.

    Also AC power measurement to single watt accuracy on loads up to perhaps 10kW would require a lot of additional expense in the smart meters.

    So unless their whole purpose is snooping, I don’t think its too much to worry about in the current state of this technology.

    I suspect at nighttime you could probably tell how many fridges people have, but as people also run a myriad of other electrical appliances all the time, e.g. pool pumps, sump pumps, air conditions, heaters, fans etc etc
    I don’t think it the data analysis would be that easy

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