LePage, legislators back opt-outs for CMP's 'smart' meter customers

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AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage supports offering opt-outs to Central Maine Power Co. customers who do not want “smart” electric meters installed on their homes.

“Philosophically, he believes people ought to have the right to opt out,” LePage spokesman Dan Demerrit said. “He doesn’t have any reservations or concerns about the technology, but believes people should be able to make up their own minds about it and shouldn’t be punished for their decisions.”

Rep. Heather Sirocki, R-Scarborough, has submitted a bill that would force the electric distribution company to offer its customers an alternative to the wireless meters, which some say cause health problems and raise security and electrical fire issues.

“I was really pleased with the governor’s reaction,” Sirocki said Monday.

Sirocki said her bill, which will have to pass through the Energy Committee before it reaches the full Legislature, has gained traction on both sides of the aisle.

“There’s definitely bipartisan support for this,” she said, citing Reps. Andrea Bolland, D-Sanford, and Ben Chipman, U-Portland, as supporters.

The bill comes after six complaints about the smart meters have been filed with the Maine Public Utilities Commission – the most recent last week – citing various concerns, and asking for an opt-out provision. The issue is now in private settlement negotiations between some of the complainants, the Office of the Public Advocate and CMP.

“We’re aware of the legislation,” CMP spokesman John Carroll said.

Carroll said the company does not believe it is appropriate for all of CMP’s customers to take on the cost of opt-outs for a small number of people. He expressed concern that offering free opt-outs could sharply reduce the number of people who participate and raise the per-customer cost of the program.

“If there is not a cost to opt out, that number could be much larger,” Carroll said. “You’d be putting rate payers at an extreme and unknown risk.”

Carroll said right now 3,400 people have asked to opt out, representing more than 2 percent of the 135,000 customers who have had meters installed. If that trend continues, he said between 6,000 and 15,000 customers may opt out.

“If it was one or two customers, we could probably do it,” Carroll said. “But if it’s 1,000 or more, that will make for a highly inefficient system.”

Carroll suggested a large number of people opting out would also affect the entire smart grid program, which is designed to increase efficiencies by eliminating the need for manual meter readers.

At the PUC’s request, the company has started evaluating the costs associated with keeping traditional meters for those who wish to opt out. Initial projections estimate it would cost individual customers  a one-time charge of $124.15 and then $9.95 per month to support the separate infrastructure necessary to collect the data manually.

“This is about freedom of choice,” lead PUC complainant Elisa Boxer-Cook of Scarborough said. “If the majority of people want these meters, the minority shouldn’t be able to derail that. But the majority can have them; we just want an option.”

House Utilities and Energy Committee member Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, said he has received a large number of e-mails from constituents concerned about the effect of smart meters, and that his committee will take the issue very seriously.

“The jury’s out for me on this,” he said Monday. “I’m trying to keep an open mind.”

Educational efforts, manufacturing

While earlier options for opt-outs included a system that utilized existing power lines instead of wireless technology to hook meters into the smart grid, that system has been deemed too costly and focus has moved to keeping the old meters.

“That would be beautiful,” Boxer-Cook said. “We would like that very much.”

However, CMP has expressed concern that there are no longer any manufacturers of the old meters.

“We would have this legacy technology that we would be preserving because customers want it,” Carroll said. “It’s not helping people protect their health, not helping protect privacy. That’s not what the PUC asked. This is about what’s fair to all customers.”

Eric Bryant, attorney for the Public Advocate’s Office, said CMP initially declined to answer questions about maintaining the existing meters and that he had to file a motion to compell the company to respond before it released the most recent cost estimates.

“That’s a big gap in what CMP should have done sooner,” Bryant said.

Bryant said he would like to see the company begin an education campaign to inform its customers about the technology and the opt-out options available to them.

“I think that’s crucial,” he said. “I pushed the company to do an educational effort initially with this project. I think education back then would have helped quell some of this.”

Request denied

The PUC ruled last week that CMP may not withhold financial information it claimed would harm its vendor, VSI Meter Services, and denied CMP’s request to redact specific cost information about the meters and meter infrastructure.

In a Feb. 24 letter, the PUC said “vendors that do business with CMP should be aware that CMP is a regulated public utility and its costs and expenses may therefore be subject to public scrutiny,” and ordered CMP to release a non-redacted version of its responses within seven days.

“I think it’s only fair, since this case affects every single CMP customer, that every single customer deserves to know the cost of the opt-outs,” Boxer-Cook said.

Meanwhile, another group has filed a complaint against CMP, citing health issues related to the installation of the wireless meters on homes.

The newest 10-person PUC complaint, filed on Feb. 23, cites health issues, from vision problems to nausea and dizziness, the complainants attribute to the installation of the meters on their or their neighbors’ homes.

“This (complaint) is really focused on the health issue,” said lead complainant Julie Tupper, who had her smart meter removed after suffering what she described as heart palpitations.

“I can still feel it from my neighbors’ smart meters,” Tupper said.

The complaint raises a question about whether those who opt out can force neighbors to also opt out. Tupper said currently people can ask their neighbors to call CMP and opt out, but that the electric company is asking people if they are suffering from health issues before removing the meters.

“CMP is very reluctant to change out the meters without (customer) complaints of health symptoms,” she said.

CMP’s Carroll said the complainants argue that they need to create a zone around them without the meters. “That raises questions for us in terms of customers who do want a meter,” he said. “I’m not sure how we’d reconcile that.”

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