HALLOWELL — Central Maine Power Co. customers who don’t want wireless “smart meters” at their homes and businesses will have alternatives because of a landmark decision Tuesday by the Maine Public Utilities Commission.
People will be able to opt out of the program by keeping their analog electricity meters or by having modified smart meters installed with the wireless transmitters turned off, the PUC decided. Customers also may have a wireless smart meter moved to another location on their property.
CMP and the PUC say they’re unaware of any other state where utility regulators have approved a smart-meter opt-out plan, although one is being considered in California. Because a vocal and well-organized minority of customers has made smart meters controversial around the country, the commission’s decision was expected to be watched closely elsewhere.
The plan was approved during deliberations by two of the three commissioners, Vendean Vafiades and David Littell, on a smart-meter complaint case. The PUC’s new chairman, Thomas Welch, most recently worked for a law firm that represented CMP, so he didn’t participate in the decision.
The alternatives to smart meters will come with costs for customers.
Choosing a digital smart meter with the wireless transmitter turned off will carry an initial charge of $20, plus a monthly charge of $10.50. Keeping a mechanical meter will cost $40 upfront, plus $12 a month. The cost of moving a smart meter will be highly variable, but typically expensive. Low-income residents will qualify for subsidies that could pay as much as half the cost of opting out.
The costs are likely to be adjusted over time, depending on how many customers want something other than the standard smart meters. An estimated 7,000 people — just over 1 percent of all customers — have asked not to have the new meters installed at their homes and businesses. CMP will continue to honor the requests until a formal opt-out process is in place.
CMP will explain to customers how to exercise their options in the near future, through its website and other means. The company is asking customers not to call about the opt-out process until details become available.
“We’re just glad to be able to move ahead,” said John Carroll, a CMP spokesman.
CMP had strongly objected to offering any alternatives, saying they would be costly and dilute the effectiveness of the technology for the vast majority of customers who want smart meters. In the end, the company chose not to appeal the decision and deferred to the PUC, saying it was up to regulators to set the policy for smart meters.
Opponents of smart meters, who had mobilized scores of residents to contact state officials about their concerns, were generally pleased with the commission’s action.
“I’m happy it has reached a conclusion,” said Suzanne Foley-Ferguson of Scarborough, one of the intervenors in the PUC case. Foley-Ferguson had argued that all ratepayers should help pay the cost of opting out, unless the PUC could determine that the meters are safe.
Elisa Boxer-Cook of Scarborough, who led the opposition, said her priority now is helping residents become educated about their choices. “I think it’s really important that people do their homework,” she said.
Boxer-Cook suggested a website maintained by opponents: http://smartmetersafety.com/
The PUC’s decision came seven months after CMP began its effort to replace 600,000 mechanical meters with wireless digital meters. The $200 million project is receiving half of its funding from the federal government, as part of a push to upgrade the nation’s power grid.
The project reflects directives from the PUC and the last Legislature to promote grid technologies that could reduce operating costs, improve service and increase energy efficiency. More than 200,000 meters have been switched.
Customers who already have the new meters will be able to choose one of the alternatives in the future.
The changeover has spawned numerous complaints, including worries about health, safety, cybersecurity and privacy. Many of the issues relate to the radio frequency network that’s being built to support communications between the meters and CMP’s offices.
In approving the opt-out plan, the PUC sidestepped most of those issues, saying it lacks the expertise to consider them. By focusing more narrowly on giving people a choice, it expressed the view that customers who are concerned have a right to feel safe in their homes.
In explaining her vote, Vafiades said the opt-out plan is reasonable and in the public interest.
“For the long-term success of smart meter implementation and to maximize its potential to the fullest, the public needs to be actively engaged in monitoring their usage and real-time price of electricity and modifying their behavior accordingly,” she said. “To achieve this goal, we need to shift the focus to the benefits of smart meters and allow the small minority to opt out.”
The PUC also made decisions on two related cases.
It voted to dismiss a request for an investigation into safety issues, including fires associated with smart meters. It decided that CMP had adequately addressed the concerns, and that the commission had already required opt-out options.
The PUC also dismissed a request for an investigation into the interference of CMP smart meters with consumer electronics and medical devices. It found that CMP is adequately addressing the concerns.
It also found that the Federal Communications Commission and the Food and Drug Administration have expertise on the issue of medical devices and have approved smart meters.
Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at: [email protected]