HALLOWELL — Central Maine Power Co. executives held tight Monday to the company’s view that letting some customers opt out of its “smart meter” program would be too costly and generally unworkable.

During a daylong session, the staff of the Maine Public Utilities Commission and intervenors in the case got their first chance to challenge the reasoning behind CMP’s position.

The questioning is tentatively scheduled to resume later this week. It may take several weeks for regulators to decide whether and where to schedule hearings at which the public can comment.

CMP has begun switching out its 620,000 mechanical meters with wireless, digital meters. It has completed 100,000 conversions so far.

The two-year project, approved last year by the commission, is aimed at improving reliability and energy management. Customers eventually will be able to track their hourly power use and run appliances at times of the day when rates are lowest.

Despite its promise, the project has been met with skepticism and resistance from some residents. A well-organized and vocal minority of customers is expressing concerns ranging from health effects to privacy and security.

These customers want an alternative to having smart meters installed at their homes, and their formal complaints have prompted a PUC investigation to determine whether CMP’s stance is unreasonable or discriminatory.

CMP says no workable options exist. In a written filing last week, it laid out why two possible alternatives – letting people keep their old meters, or using phone lines to communicate with the smart meters – would be too expensive or dilute the benefits of the new network for other customers.

“We are testing those assumptions,” said Eric Bryant, senior counsel for the Maine Public Advocate’s Office.

Monday’s meeting, known as a technical conference, was the first chance for consumers’ lawyers and the PUC staff to probe CMP’s facts and figures in an open forum. The utility was represented by Eric Stinneford, a vice president and controller; Laney Brown, the project director; and Gary Fauth, a consultant on the project.

The CMP representatives couldn’t answer several key questions. That led the Public Advocate’s Office and other intervenors to make about two dozen formal requests for more information, a process in which the company must find the answers and report back.

“In another two or three weeks, we’ll have those questions answered,” Bryant said.

Intervenors wanted to know, for instance, how closely CMP examined other options and how it calculated the costs.

They learned that CMP uses so-called hard-wired meters that communicate over phone lines for about 750 customers, most of them large industries. Most of those companies use dedicated phone lines, CMP executives said; adding a dedicated second line at a typical home would boost the cost of service.

CMP has said the only option it would consider is installing a smart meter in a place inside or outside a home that causes the occupant less concern, such as away from a bedroom. The average cost of that job would be $2,000, the company estimated, paid by the customer.

Intervenors had many questions about how the cost was calculated, whether a meter could be mounted on a utility pole, and the maximum distance a meter could be from a house. Private electricians, not CMP, would be responsible for such wiring changes.

Haggling over the details of moving meters apparently mattered little to some intervenors, who maintain that as long as a smart meter is wired to a house, it emits radio frequency waves that pose a health risk.

“Unfortunately, relocation is not a solution for what we’re talking about,” said Elisa Boxer-Cook, one of the lead organizers and intervenors.

Boxer-Cook has said CMP seems to be putting all of its energy into justifying why it can’t satisfy the demands of concerned customers, rather than seeking solutions.

“They did not in good faith explore options, and I think this really shows that,” she said. “The only homework they’ve done is homework to support their argument.”

Relocation isn’t meant to be an opt-out choice, said John Carroll, a CMP spokesman who attended the session. It’s a way to move the meter away from prime areas of concern, and won’t keep most residents from being part of the wireless networks being established in their neighborhoods.

Carroll said he’s not sure how CMP can find compromises with residents who simply don’t want smart meters on their properties or in their neighborhoods.

“I don’t know how we negotiate with these people,” he said.

 

Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at: [email protected]