Maine Supreme Judicial Court to hear 'smart'-meter arguments; lawmaker questions opt-out fees

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PORTLAND — The debate over Central Maine Power Co.’s “smart” electrical meters is headed to the state’s highest court.

A group of CMP customers filed the appeal last week with the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

They claim the Maine Public Utilities Commission, which dismissed a request for an investigation into the safety of wireless meters, violated the state statute that requires the regulatory agency to ensure utilities provide safe service to their customers.

“They have specifically said on several occasions that they won’t make a decision on these (health and security) issues,” said Ed Friedman, a Bowdoinham resident and lead complainant. “When they specifically avoid their responsibility, that makes the whole darn thing null and void.”

The PUC declined to investigate the 19-person complaint on Aug. 31, declaring that a previous probe that resulted in requiring CMP to offer opt-outs to customers who do not wish to have the meters installed on their homes or businesses was sufficient. 

The smart meters transmit customer data wirelessly to CMP, and will allow customers to track their electricity use in real time. The plan is to give customers the option of using electricity during off-peak hours, which could save them money and reduce the use of fossil fuel sources used mostly during peak hours.

But PUC complaints rolled in last year as some customers expressed concerns that the meters were not secure, could cause fires in homes with older electrical systems, and could affect the health of some people.

In May, the PUC required CMP to offer its customers the option of opting out of the smart meter program. The opt-outs require customers pay an additional fee to keep their old meters, or to have the wireless capabilities of the smart meter turned off.

Friedman said the decision to make customers pay for opting out of a service that critics say has not been proved safe or secure was a mistake.

“In reality it’s a false choice. We see this as a great experiment,” Friedman said. “This is a great experiment on Mainers, affecting both our health and privacy.”

Friedman said his group has also called for the resignation of the commissioners who made the decision not to investigate the safety and security of the meters, and said he’d like to see the smart meter program abandoned.

“The state statute says (the PUC commissioners) need to ensure service is safe. It doesn’t say just make sure there’s a good chance service is safe, it says it must be safe,” Friedman said.

In addition to the PUC appeal, state Rep. Roberta Beavers, D-South Berwick, has filed emergency legislation that would prevent those who have opted out of the smart meter program from having to pay the $40 initial opt-out fee and a $12-per-month fee for meter readings.

“Essentially (the bill) is to remedy the inequity that was created by the opt-out charges,” Beavers said.

Beavers said she did not understand why people who did not want expensive equipment installed on their houses would have to pay a tax to keep their old meters.

“If people don’t want this on their dwelling, they should not have to have them,” she said.

Beavers said she has opted out of smart meter installation, but does not necessarily have a problem with the program. Her concern is the charge assessed to those who opted out.

“They’ve already put the $40 (opt-out charge) on my bill. I’m going to contest it,” she said.

Beavers’ initial emergency legislation was not accepted by the Legislative Council, but she said she will appeal that decision on Nov. 17.

CMP spokesman John Carroll said the company is still on track to have more than 600,000 smart meters installed by the first quarter of 2012.

He said the company does not have any comment on the lawsuit. In the past, Carroll has stopped short of saying smart meters are safe, and has emphasized that it is not CMP’s job to test the safety of the meters, deferring that decision to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other experts.

The Maine Center for Disease Control previously stated that it did not find “any consistent or convincing evidence to support a concern for health effects related to the use of radiofrequency in the range of frequencies and power used by smart meters.”

That statement came before the World Health Organization this year added radiation from cell phones and other wireless devices, such as smart meters, as a possible carcinogen.

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