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AUGUSTA — Central Maine Power Co. customers who do not want “smart” electric meters will be able to opt out of the program, after a decision Tuesday by the Maine Public Utilities Commission.
The PUC ruled that customers who do not want the wireless meters on their homes or businesses may have to pay an extra fee to use older meters, which require manual meter readings. The wireless meters communicate billing information directly to CMP, saving the company the cost of employees who drive around checking meters.
The decision was a partial victory for opponents of the meters, who have also claimed the wireless technology has negative health effects on some people, creates fire risks for homes with older wiring and can cause interference with other wireless networks. The PUC previously declined to investigate the health-related claims.
“Ignoring the concern is neither reasonable nor sufficient and addressing the concern is the only reasonable course of action,” Commission David Littell said during the deliberations.
Littell said the decision should not suggest the meters are unsafe, as that is not an issue the PUC will be investigating.
“This decision is about customer responsiveness and the acceptance of new technology,” he said.
Commissioner Vendean Vafiades agreed that the company should offer opt-outs.
“I think it’s important that people feel safe in their own homes,” Vafiades said. “I believe customers should be able to make a subjective decision.”
Commission Chairman Thomas Welch did not participate in the deliberations.
“I’m grateful and relieved that CMP cannot force customers to buy a product that’s wreaking havoc with people’s health and wi-fi systems across the country,” lead PUC complainant Elisa Boxer-Cook of Scarborough said. “Unfortunately, based on the number of calls and emails I’m receiving, the problems with smart meters are getting worse. But at least now each customer can do their homework and decide for themselves whether they want one of these controversial devices on their private home.”
PUC staff presented an analysis April 21 that outlined two possible opt-out procedures. The first would allow customers to keep their old meters for an initial charge of $40, and a monthly charge of $12.
The second option would include installation of the smart meter, but its ability to transmit wirelessly would be disabled. This option would still allow CMP to turn off the meters remotely and would cost customers $20 initially and $10.50 per month.
Both options still require meter readers to take on-site readings every other month.
The PUC report estimates approximately 9,000 of the more than 600,000 customers set to receive smart meters would choose to opt out, or about 1.5 percent. About 5,000 customers have already asked out of the program.
The PUC’s decision includes a requirement that CMP inform its customers of the opt-out option. Customers can call the company to opt out before the meter is installed, or have it removed or the transmitter turned off after it is installed.
A CMP spokesman was not immediately available for comment on Tuesday.