HALLOWELL — The Office of the Public Advocate has filed a letter with the Maine Public Utilities Commission alleging that Central Maine Power Co. is “bullying and intimidating” its customers to install controversial “smart” electric meters on their homes.
The letter comes during PUC settlement hearings between the electricity distribution company and consumers who have challenged CMP’s refusal to allow customers to opt out of the wireless meter installations.
The consumers, who claim the meters are a health and cybersecurity risk, are backed by bipartisan efforts in the Legislature to draft a bill that would force CMP to offer opt-outs. Gov. Paul LePage has also come out in support of the opt-outs.
The public advocate’s letter, filed Tuesday, alleges that customers who have asked to opt out are being told that option is no longer available. In addition to its own letter addressing the issue, the advocate filed a copy of a letter sent by CMP to a customer that calls installation of the meters “necessary as a condition of service.” The letter goes on to say that “failure to contact us may result in further action being taken on your account.”
“People are scared that their power is going to be turned off if they don’t agree to get a smart meter,” lead PUC complainant Elisa Boxer-Cook of Scarborough said.
Boxer-Cook said over the weekend she had a surprising increase in the number of people contacting her to say that they were being bullied or pressured into having the meters installed.
Christopher Dudley of Limerick said he was pressured by a meter technician who recently came to install a meter on Dudley’s workshop.
“He became quite frustrated and attempted to make me feel like I was stupid,” Dudley said in an e-mail. “He gave various examples of radio frequency waves that we are exposed to right now every day, in an irritated tone which sounded quite scripted from his employers.”
Dudley said the technician continued to argue with him, but eventually relented and left without installing the meter.
Laura Urbaitis of Winthrop said when she initially attempted to opt out of the meters, CMP told her she couldn’t.
“I was persistent,” she said. “Then they said I could opt out until the PUC ruled (on the investigation).”
Urbaitis said after that, she received a letter from CMP stating she was temporarily opted out of the smart meter program. She also put a sign on her meter to alert meter installers that she had opted out.
“Then the people in the white trucks showed up,” she said. “(A meter technician) told us we wouldn’t have a choice eventually.”
A month later, the trucks came back and again, Urbaitis stopped the meter installation crew in her driveway and told them that she had opted out.
“He told me it was ridiculous,” she said. “I found them to be very pushy. Obviously they’ve had some kind of training in what to say to customers who have opted out.”
So Urbaitis took matters into her own hands. She paid $3,400 to Time Warner Cable to have the cable company move a large cable box that requires its own electrical meter from its location across from her house, to a new location down the street. She also paid to have electrical lines buried underground, so if a smart meter is installed in the future, it would be far from her home.
“I have spent thousands of dollars on this,” Urbaitis said. “I don’t have a cordless phone, a cell phone or wireless. I’m very sensitive to it.”
According to CMP, approximately 3,500 people have opted out of the meters.
“I would like CMP to stop treating its customers this way,” attorney Eric Bryant, who signed the letter for the Office of the Public Advocate, said Tuesday. “They promised the PUC, customers and the Department of Energy that they would honor the opt outs until the PUC made its ruling.”
Bryant said that it is unclear whether the decision to pressure customers into installing the meters was coming from CMP management or from individual meter technicians.
“If it’s coming from the top, that’s a bigger problem,” he said.
However, CMP spokesman John Carroll said the company had not changed its policies on allowing customers to opt out until the PUC reaches its decision.
“Our goal is to accept customers’ requests without argument,” Carroll said.
If a customer contacts CMP ahead of time, speaks to a installation technician before the installation or calls after the smart meter is installed and asks to opt out, Carroll said the company’s policy is to allow them to do that.
“That’s the commitment we’ve made to customers and we’re absolutely still committed to that,” he said, adding that the company will be investigating the claims of bullying tactics used by meter technicians.
He said the letter sent to a customer by CMP that threatened “further action being taken on your account” is sent to customers who have meters inaccessible to technicians and who have not responded to the company at all.
“But if they call us and say they don’t want a meter, we won’t install it,” Carroll said. “It’s always our intent to treat our customers with respect.”
Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or firstname.lastname@example.org