Lawmakers table 'smart' meter opt-out, kill moratorium

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AUGUSTA — A bill that would require Central Maine Power Co. to allow customers to opt out of new “smart” electrical meters was derailed Monday by a legislative committee.

The House Energy and Utilities Committee unanimously voted to table the bill, introduced by Rep. Heather Sirocki, R-Scarborough, which would offer customers the ability to opt out of having the wireless meters installed on their home or business.

The committee killed another bill, introduced by Sen. Larry Bliss, D-South Portland, that would have put a one-year moratorium on installation of the meters until more safety testing could be done.

“I think that was the appropriate thing for them to do,” said Eric Bryant, a lead attorney for the Maine Office of the Public Advocate.

The decision comes as the Maine Public Utilities Commission is poised to make its own decision about opt-outs, after seven complaints were filed with the agency, many of which specifically requested a way out of the program.

Last week, in a decision on one of the complaints, the PUC declined to reconsider its previous position that it will not investigate whether the meters pose a health threat.  

“We think the comments from representatives of the PUC and the Office of Public Advocate made a big impact on the legislators,” CMP spokesman John Carroll said Tuesday in a prepared statement. “The PUC staff helped them understand this is a highly technical issue, especially in regards to the possible costs of the redundant systems for customers who opt out.”

Bryant said it was customary for the Energy and Utilities Committee to table bills that directly relate to issues being debated before the PUC, because the PUC has the expertise to rule on what can be highly technical matters.

“We wanted them to table it until after the PUC’s decision,” lead PUC complainant Elisa Boxer-Cook of Scarborough said. “It’s been our position all along that we’re making great progress with the PUC. I trust that the PUC will grant the opt-outs.”

Confidential settlement agreements between CMP and some of the PUC complainants broke down April 8. Now the issues will be debated in an open forum before the PUC, which will ultimately decide whether to force CMP to offer customers the option of a traditional, hard-wired meter.

“While the process was productive to a degree, the discussions were not successful in resolving all differences among the parties. We have ended our discussions by mutual agreement,” Carroll said.

Boxer-Cook said she was surprised the settlement discussions broke down, but that she was confident the PUC was listening carefully to the complainants’ concerns.

At least 5,000 people have already requested to opt out of the meters, which have been installed on more than 150,000 homes and businesses in Maine.

The wireless meters, which are part of CMP’s plan to create a “smart” grid network that would give customers the ability to monitor their electricity use in real time, have come under fire by citizen groups who question their safety and cybersecurity.

Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or Follow her on Twitter: @emilyparkhurst.