Installation of 'smart' electric meters begins in Scarborough

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SCARBOROUGH — Crews from Central Maine Power Co. were slated Tuesday to start replacing traditional electric meters with new wireless “smart” meters.

The installations marked the end of a 30-day window customers had to opt out of receiving the new meters (for a price).

The utility claims the new devices will reduce costs and environmental impacts,  and increase efficiency through the wireless transmission of electricity usage data.

The company was required by the Maine Public Utilities Commission to offer customers the ability to opt out after some users opposed the smart-meter plan. They claimed the devices present health and safety risks, and could interfere with other wireless systems.

A CMP spokesman would not say how many customers have opted out.

“This project has never really slowed down,” spokesman Jon Carroll said Tuesday. “We’ve installed 320,000 meters statewide. We’ve not been held up, and we haven’t suffered a lack of momentum or certainty that we’re going to get it done.”

The notification process is continuing in other parts of the state, but Carroll said the company was about halfway through, and thus ready to begin implementation of the “smart” network.

There are almost 10,000 CMP customers in Scarborough, which became the heart of opposition to the smart meter installation plan, thanks in no small part to resident Elisa Boxer-Cook.

Boxer-Cook was one of the complainants to the PUC whose appeal eventually led to the mandatory opt-out notification. She and a handful of others started the Smart Meter Safety Coalition, which continues to lobby against the devices.

Despite the start of smart meter installation in Scarborough, Boxer-Cook was upbeat in an interview Tuesday.

“I’m really proud that finally, when CMP is coming into Scarborough, it’s in the context of people being allowed to choose whether they want a smart meter.” she said. “Late last fall, CMP was all set to come in to Scarborough and they wanted to be able to force every person to have one.”

While the initial window for opting out is over, at least in Scarborough, customers will continue to have options after receiving their smart meters. For an additional $25 fee they can still choose either opt-out plan: Take the smart meter, but have the wireless capacity turned off ($20 plus $10.50 per month), or keep their old meter ($40 plus $12 per month).

Boxer-Cook said she expects more customers will have concerns about smart meters after the devices are installed. She said she is already getting calls from people across the state who say the devices are interfering with their wireless networks, giving them headaches or affecting their sleep patterns.

“Entire neighborhoods may be unable to connect to wi-fi,” Boxer-Cook said. “That’s really important to people. The majority of calls I’m getting are about those electronic interference issues. That’s just as valid a concern as people who haven’t been able to sleep.”

Carroll, CMP’s spokesman, said the company is aware of the potential for electronic interference and that the company has already received at least 100 calls from customers complaining about losing their wi-fi or wireless phone signals.

“We expected that,” he said. “Any time you bring in a new radio-frequency device into a home, there are interactions with other devices already there. We’re ready for that.”

He said customers can have a CMP team come to their home or business free of charge to help figure out the interference problem. Usually, he said, it’s as simple as adjusting a setting on a wireless Internet router or changing the channel used by a wireless phone.

Whatever problems may arise, Carroll and Boxer-Cook said they’re both sure the end of the 30-day window won’t end the debate over smart meters.

Challenges to the program continue to be lobbed at the PUC. One complaint, urging the PUC to re-examine health concerns associated with the smart meters, was dismissed less than a month ago. Another complaint was thrown out earlier this week.

Boxer-Cook said she’s aware of more complaints coming, and Carroll said he knew of at least one more in the pipeline, although the company is not worried. 

“The commission has been consistent in the way it treats these new complaints,” he said.

Moving forward, Boxer-Cook said she just hopes she and other customers will continue to be part of the dialog.

“This is a really significant issue for many customers,” she said. “I would hope CMP would look at that and look for a conversation.”

Mario Moretto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or mmoretto@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @riocarmine.

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