CMP tells forum its 'smart' meters are safe from hackers, fire

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SCARBOROUGH — Approximately 30 people turned out Tuesday night for a second public forum to discuss “smart” electrical meters Central Maine Power Co. is installing on homes throughout southern Maine.

The agenda stuck strictly to cybersecurity and fire risks, two issues that had to be postponed after the first meeting on health concerns lasted more than five hours two weeks ago.

Cybersecurity

Gary Conover, owner of Computerworks in Scarborough, asked why CMP did not obtain Achilles security certification, which, he said, would certify that the wireless network CMP is using to connect the meters to its office in Augusta is safe from hackers.

George Gamble from Black & Veatch, CMP’s security company, said the company followed several standards regulating this kind of technology and that it is as safe from attack as it can be.

“There’s always holes in every system,” he said. “We are running through our own vulnerabilities and doing a lot of work on the back side.”

Gamble said the company’s cybersecurity plan was approved by the U.S. Department of Energy and that its standards are the same as those used by the nuclear industry.

Scarborough resident Kerry Corthell asked what kind of data the meters would be sending, what would be stored and for how long.

CMP spokesman John Carroll explained that customer data is tightly regulated by the Maine Public Utilities Commission, which requires data be stored for up to seven years.

Dave Saunders, of Biddeford, expressed concern that moving the entire electrical grid online opened up doors that didn’t exist previously and that people with malicious intent could take advantage.

“I haven’t seen anything that makes me think that a determined person couldn’t find a way around it,” Saunders said. “Just look at Blue-ray. Sony claimed it was (hack-proof)  and that people would waste their time trying to crack it. Within five hours of its release, it was cracked.”

On its website, the Maine Public Advocate has cited similar concerns that the meters’ security could be compromised:

“This is a technology that is evolving, and we are concerned that the systems being installed now may soon become obsolete or suffer from debilitating ‘bugs’ and other problems.”

Public Advocate Richard Davies said there has been enough concern about the cybersecurity of smart-grid technology that he would like to see further testing of the specific meters CMP is using before determining if they are safe.

“We’re concerned this could be a back-door way in to do harm to the whole system,” Davies said.

The public advocate’s office opposed the installation of the meters at the initial proposal because it did not see enough customer benefits to outweigh the cost of installation. However, when the stimulus money became available to fund the installation, Davies said, the position became irrelevant.

“We were focusing on the costs and benefits to rate payers. Cybersecurity and health issues had not been raised yet,” he said.

Fire risks

The second half of the meeting covered possible fire risks that may be associated with installation of the new meters.

Averyl Hill, a Scarborough resident, filed a complaint with the PUC in October questioning the training of the new meter installation technicians and the safety of installing the new meters on homes with older wiring.

“Last November employees at a California business stated that their smart meter caught fire and they found it burned and lying on the ground with the face plate blown off,” Hill said. “The fire department said in response that there may have been some ‘minor incidents’ of smart meters burning up in the area, but there were no confirmed house fires due to the meter itself.”

In the PUC complaint and during Tuesday’s meeting, Hill asked about the training received by installers working for contractor VSI Meter Services and if they are capable of identifying fire risks.

“VSI is not making any repairs, not touching any of the wiring,” CMP’s Wilson Lau said. “Even CMP employees themselves cannot make repairs. CMP has contracted with local electricians to do repairs on customers’ behalf.”

Lau explained that CMP has three electricians on call all the time if a VSI technician or CMP meter reader discovers a possible electrical issue – something, he said, they are trained to look for.

Russ Farwell, a CMP unit supervisor, said the technicians are actually discovering more possible fire hazards than the company anticipated, and informing customers of dangers they otherwise would not have known existed. He said, so far, they have discovered 70 to 80 electrical issues in the Portland area.

“I didn’t think they’d find that many,” he said.

Wilson and Carroll explained that CMP would pay for electrical issues it discovers in the meter enclosure after pulling the meter, something customers were responsible for before the smart meter project was rolled out.

Hill also asked why CMP was not informing customers when their meters would be changed out so they could unplug sensitive equipment or make sure they are home when the change-over happens.

“We have decided not to provide that notice, but we do knock on the door,” Carroll said.

Farwell said recently a customer’s television was destroyed during a meter replacement because the man allegedly did not come to the door when a technician knocked and then left the television on during the meter change.

“When you pull the meter, you’re interrupting the power, just like in a storm,” Carroll said.

After the meeting, Hill said she was happy to hear CMP had changed its policy on paying for electrical repairs associated with meter installations, but not satisfied by all of CMP’s responses.

“I am still concerned about fire risks,” she said, citing what she called a disparity between the year of on the job training CMP requires of their own employees and the approximately two weeks training VSI provides to its meter technicians, who aren’t required to have prior experience or electrical education.

“I worry that they can miss something subtle,” she said. “I will leave it up to the PUC to decide if it’s enough.”

Next steps

Three complaints about the meter program have been filed with the PUC and more are reportedly in the works. The regulatory agency can decide whether to dismiss the complaints or open an investigation.

Davies, the public advocate, indicated his office will hire a consultant to examine health and security concerns if the PUC opens an investigation.

Rep. Andrea Boland, D-Sanford, indicated Tuesday after the meeting that she was preparing legislation about the smart meter issue, but was not ready to present details of a possible bill.

Carroll said Tuesday that Scarborough is scheduled to receive its meters in the first quarter of the new year.

Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or eparkhurst@theforecaster.net

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Maine PUC gets another complaint about meters

SOUTH PORTLAND — A third complaint has been filed with the Maine Public Utilities Commission over Central Maine Power Co.’s “smart”-meter program.

The new complaint, filed Dec. 13 by South Portland resident Teresa Swinbourne, asks the power company to provide an opt-out provision to customers who do not wish to have the wireless meters installed on their homes.

“CMP wrote a grant for $96 million funded by taxpayers, yet they are disregarding the differences among those taxpayers,” the complaint says.

It asks the company to provide a second option of meters that operate through a dedicated phone line instead of wirelessly.

CMP has until Dec. 23 to respond to the complaint.

— Emily Parkhurst

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