PORTLAND — Diane Leonard had lots of questions about smart electricity meters. Through the media, she had heard that they emit radiation, and she was worried about potential health effects.<br><br>

Standing outside Leonard’s home in the city’s West End, a representative of Central Maine Power Co. told her that the meters emit no more radio frequency transmissions than the cordless phone she was holding. Moments later, she became one of the 1,500 or so CMP customers who had smart meters installed Monday.<br><br>

“I just want them to know I’m uncomfortable, because I don’t know what this will bring,” Leonard said as her old meter was being switched out.

CMP has begun a two-year project to replace all of its 620,000 meters with a new generation of wireless, digital devices.

Opponents of the technology have asked the Maine Public Utilities Commission, which approved the $192 million program, to stop it and investigate potential health effects.

CMP has requested that the complaint be dismissed. On Monday, the lead opponent in the case asked for 21 days to respond to CMP’s request before the PUC takes any action.

Meanwhile, CMP is moving ahead with its program. So far, it has installed 50,700 meters. Fewer than 400 customers have asked the utility not to do the work – requests that CMP is honoring, for the time being.

The process of installing a smart meter generally is very straightforward. A technician working for Aston, Pa.-based VSI Meter Services, CMP’s subcontractor, knocks on the door to explain what’s about to be done. If no one’s at home, the technician leaves an informational tag on the door.

Then the meter panel is removed, the old unit is pulled out and the new meter is plugged in. The switch takes less than five minutes. Power is disrupted for about 15 seconds.

The simplicity is a stark contrast to the legal and strategic wrangling surrounding the program.

Smart electricity meters are being installed across the United States and around the world. In Maine, CMP says the meters will usher in a new era of energy management and service.

They will allow customers to track and adjust their power use and help CMP respond faster to outages. Over time, they will help match energy supply and demand in an evolving, regional smart grid that integrates more renewable generation, such as wind power.

Opponents, led by Elisa Boxer-Cook of Scarborough, an environmental health activist, say that goal ignores a worldwide debate over the safety of the wireless transmissions that connect networks of smart meters. Such concerns have led Scarborough, Cape Elizabeth and Sanford to pass resolutions asking for moratoriums.

An informational workshop was held Monday evening in South Portland, featuring CMP and opponents of smart meters. Next week, representatives from CMP will attend a public meeting in Scarborough, where the utility has agreed to postpone installations until after the forum.

Also Monday, a national initiative was launched to encourage people to unplug wireless devices in their homes. It calls for a moratorium on technologies such as smart meters. Its website is www.prove-it.co/.

In PUC legal filings, CMP says its technology is safe and the equipment is approved by the Federal Communications Commission. It notes that Maine’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention found no credible scientific evidence of health problems from the very low-power, intermittent radio frequency transmissions, and no examples of state health departments acting to stop smart meter installations.

In a letter filed Monday, Boxer-Cook says that most of CMP’s evidence is one-sided and comes from an international consulting firm that has ignored the most recent developments on the issue. She points to news last week that Pacific Gas & Electric, a large utility in California that is under fire for smart meter installations, is considering alternatives for people who say they are sensitive to radiation from cell phones, laptop computers and other wireless devices.

Boxer-Cook wants CMP to consider allowing customers to opt out of the program, or have smart meters hard-wired to the network.

Those options would be more costly and would dilute the benefits of the project, said John Carroll, CMP’s spokesman. “It would be up to the commission to permit that, but our goal is to have a uniform technology,” he said.

Carroll was on hand Monday as Zachary Pomelow, a VSI technician, moved along his meter change-out route. Pomelow made quick work of a five-unit apartment building on Brackett Street; no one answered the door when he called.

Across the street, Leonard was at home. She expressed health concerns, and asked about losing power and the impact on her cable television and furnace. Pomelow politely answered her questions, and gave her a card with CMP contact information.

“We were better off when we didn’t know, and you guys could just do your thing,” Leonard said at one point.

CMP and VSI are doing their thing at 1,500 homes and businesses a day while the PUC process plays out.

The PUC is waiting for Boxer-Cook’s formal response to CMP’s request to dismiss the complaint. The commission then could seek more information, dismiss the complaint or open a formal proceeding. No time frame has been set.

In a separate complaint, the PUC is asking for more information to consider a claim that installing new meters could cause fires in homes with old wiring.

CMP typically changes out 15,000 meters a year as they age or malfunction. It has hired electricians to fix wiring problems in old houses that could interfere with the installation of smart meters. Typically, customers have to pay for that work.

 

Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at: tturkel@pressherald.com