The state’s consumer advocate asked the Public Utilities Commission on Tuesday to direct Central Maine Power Co. to stop “bullying” customers into accepting smart meters.

Eric Bryant, senior counsel in the Public Advocate’s Office, notified the PUC that his office has received complaints from residents who said they weren’t allowed to temporarily opt out of CMP’s smart meter installation program.

“We request that CMP be strongly admonished,” Bryant wrote in a letter to the PUC.

The letter is the latest development in a growing debate over a customer’s right not to accept the new meters.

Last year, the PUC approved CMP’s plan to replace its 620,000 mechanical meters with wireless digital meters, which some people believe cause health problems and security risks. The company, which has installed 147,000 of the meters, maintains that all meters must be switched out for the system to be effective.

Smart meters emit wireless signals that can be read remotely, eliminating the need for meter readers. They also enable CMP to track outages more effectively, and will someday enable consumers to reduce power consumption in their homes at times of day when electricity is more costly.

The PUC is now negotiating with CMP and its customers to find an alternative for people who do not want smart meters. CMP has agreed to allow customers to opt out until the negotiations are concluded. So far, about 3,900 customers — 2.5 percent — have requested the temporary opt-out.

Bryant said customers report that CMP is no longer honoring its agreement. CMP said, however, that it is continuing to honor all temporary opt-out requests.

Bryant described several of the complaints, such as a Portland man who was told that he must allow the installation of a new meter because in “a month, everyone will have to have one installed anyway.”

Bryant cited a Winthrop resident who said she feels she must stay at home during business hours because an installer has shown up twice at her house — after she requested a temporary opt-out.

Bryant also described a letter from CMP to one of its customers threatening “to take action on your account” if the woman did not contact the company to schedule an appointment to have her meter replaced. He said some people would interpret that as a threat to suspend service.

“This letter and this conduct is outrageous and needs to stop,” Bryant wrote.

CMP spokesman John Carroll said the letter goes to customers who don’t respond to installers’ repeated attempts to schedule an appointment to switch a meter that is not accessible from outside the house.

He said the letter is sent after an installer has made two visits to the house, found no one there and left contact information, followed by three phone messages and an initial letter. If there is no response, the company’s protocol calls for the second letter threatening further action.

“That language is intended to spur them to do something. If at any time they had contacted us and said, ‘I don’t want you to install our meter,’ we would say, ‘OK, fine,’ ” Carroll said.

He said further action does not necessarily mean that power would be shut off. He said that is for the PUC to decide.

Carroll said CMP does not instruct employees to bully or intimidate customers.

Bryant, in his letter, also asked the PUC to order CMP to immediately inform all of its customers of the temporary opt-out option, and to treat its customers with respect.

Evelyn deFrees, a PUC spokeswoman, said CMP has until Monday to respond to the complaint filed by the Public Advocate’s Office.

She said the matter will likely become part of the negotiations to find alternatives to the smart meters and determine who would pay for them.

 

Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at: [email protected]