UPDATE: Maine PUC rejects complaint against CMP 'smart' electric meters

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Legislative panel considers bills regulating new meters

AUGUSTA —The Public Utilities Commission on Tuesday rejected a complaint that sought reconsideration of the commission’s 2010 approval of Central Maine Power Co.’s “smart” electric meter program.

The complaint was one of seven before the commission that oppose the CMP program. The others are still pending.

At the Statehouse, meanwhile, two bills before the Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Utilities and Energy would regulate the way the new meters are rolled out to customers.

The PUC said in its ruling that “there is nothing in law that would compel the Commission to expend the substantial amount of resources that would be necessary to create a forum for the debate and resolution of issues regarding the health impacts of wireless smart meters or to find another body to conduct such an investigation, and we decline to do so.”

“The commission has been very clear,” CMP spokesman John Carroll said Wednesday. “They said ‘we understand the technology we approved, we designed the system in some ways, we heard the complaints, and we still think it was the right decision.'”

In the Legislature, Sen. Larry Bliss, D-South Portland, introduced legislation that would institute a one-year moratorium on the installations and require the utility to remove the meters at customers’ requests for a fee of no more than $30. The meters have already been installed on more than 150,000 homes and businesses.

Sen. Heather Sirocki, R-Scarborough, introduced legislation that would require CMP to provide wired meters at no cost, instead of the wireless smart meters, if requested by customers.

The bills and PUC’s decision come after the meters have come under fire from citizen advocates who question their safety and security. Seven 10-person complaints have been filed with the Maine Public Utilities Commission, several of which are being investigated by the regulatory body; some are in confidential settlement hearings.

CMP representatives testified during Monday’s committee hearing that delaying the smart meter installation would, in effect, kill the program and force the company to pay back the $22 million in funds it has already received from the U.S. Dept. of Energy.

“By one of our estimates, if 10 percent of customers opt out, then the alternative (wired meters) costs as much as the entire smart grid project,” Carroll said Tuesday.

He said that if the Legislature decides to reverse an earlier decision to approve the smart grid project, it needs to also consider who will pay for that decision.

“We’ve gone a long way down this road to be in compliance with expectations of these laws. If this entire investment were to be abandoned, where would responsibility lie?” he said.

Approximately 20 people testified against the smart meters, many citing health issues and cybersecurity concerns as reasons to delay the installations or offer an opt-out to customers.

More than 4,000 people have already requested opt-outs, which CMP is offering until the PUC rules on its investigation.

“Complaints are pouring in to the PUC, the Public Advocate’s Office, legislators,” lead PUC complainant Elisa Boxer-Cook of Scarborough said Tuesday. “Meanwhile the only people CMP can find to say smart meters are safe are lobbyists, people who work for CMP, and ‘experts’ from the same science-for-hire firm that argued second-hand smoke and asbestos were safe. I was glad that legislators had a chance to hear that yesterday.”

Boxer-Cook testified that evidence about the safety of smart meters is inconclusive and that the scientific community needs more time to investigate  complaints from people who claim the meters are making them sick.

Carroll said it was important to look at the testimony provided by scientific experts and the Maine Center for Disease Control, which said there was no proven causal link between smart meters and health problems.

“We don’t look to Elisa Boxer-Cook for recommendations on public health, we look to the experts,” Carroll said.

In addition to concerns about the wireless meters’ hackability, several people also testified about interference with other wireless devices, such as wireless routers and smart phones.

The committee expected to hold a work session on the two bills next week.

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