AUGUSTA — Proposed laws to allow customers to opt out of Central Maine Power Co.’s smart meter program or impose a one-year ban on further installations would kill the project and cost ratepayers tens of millions of dollars, CMP officials said Monday at a public hearing on the bills.
But others argued that legitimate concerns over health effects, privacy and cyber security should persuade the Legislature to put the program on hold until key questions are answered.
“At some point, we have to say, ‘stop,’ ” said Sen. Larry Bliss, D-South Portland, who sponsored the bill calling for a moratorium. “These things might be making people sick.”
There’s no agreement on how to validate that claim, but Bliss said mounting complaints from constituents have led him to call for a year-long ban on installations while the matter gets further study.
It has been six months since CMP began its wide-reaching effort to replace 600,000 mechanical electricity meters with wireless digital meters.
The $200 million project is receiving half of its funding from the federal government, part of a national effort to upgrade the nation’s power grid.
CMP’s project reflects recent directives from the Maine Public Utilities Commission and the last Legislature to promote grid technologies that could reduce operating costs, improve service and increase energy efficiency.
CMP has replaced 157,000 meters so far.
Few people anticipated the degree of negative response from people who do not want the new devices.
The project has spawned an unprecedented seven formal citizen complaint cases before the PUC, prompting a complex and growing investigation by the agency.
It has led to confidential settlement talks between intervenors in the cases, CMP and state officials.
Now, Maine lawmakers are being pulled into the battle. The legislative committee that handles energy and utility issues heard hours of testimony Monday from lawmakers, residents and experts.
Members heard how the smart meter network’s wireless radio-frequency technology can cause a range of health problems in some people, how the meters’ information-gathering ability violates privacy, and how they are vulnerable to security breaches.
Each argument was disputed by CMP. But Suzanne Foley-Ferguson, a Scarborough resident, told the committee that Mainers should have the right to protect their health and privacy, and that right is taken away when smart meters are installed against their will.
That could be mitigated by a bill introduced by Rep. Heather Sirocki, R-Scarborough. Her initial proposal would have allowed homeowners to opt out of having smart meters installed, at no cost.
At Monday’s hearing, Sirocki said she is open to the idea of requiring residents to pay “a reasonable cost” for alternative meters.
About 3,500 people have asked to keep their old meters, she noted. “People should not be afraid to be in their own homes,” she said.
Alternatives could have a high cost, CMP estimates.
Setting up a duplicate, “hard wire” meter system could cost as much as $70 million if less than 2 percent of its customers opt out, said Eric Stinneford, a CMP vice president who is involved with the project. If 10 percent of customers declined, the cost could be hundreds of millions of dollars.
And if smart meters are banned and the program is abandoned, Stinneford said, CMP would lose its federal grant, be required to pay back $22 million it has received so far, and remove the 157,000 meters it has installed.
Those costs would be borne by all customers, he said.
It’s noteworthy, said David Allen, a CMP spokesman, that the company is moving ahead at the urging of the state and federal governments, and with PUC approval that came just last year. The company has spent tens of millions of dollars to advance those policies, and now finds itself fighting to continue the investment.
“If Maine is truly ‘open for business,’ then this is a poor way to start,” Allen said, referring to a mantra of the administration of Gov. Paul LePage.
One solution, suggested by Eric Bryant, senior counsel for the state Public Advocate’s Office, is for the Legislature to defer action until the PUC completes its investigation or the parties reach agreement in their settlement talks. CMP endorses that approach.
But the committee’s co-chair Sen. Michael Thibodeau, R-Winterport, said the panel hasn’t had time to discuss that option, and is under pressure to stay on track and report bills out to the Legislature.
Bryant’s suggestion could be taken up next week, during a committee work session on the bills, Thibodeau said.
Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at: [email protected]