A month after state regulators approved an opt-out plan for residents who don’t want wireless “smart meters” in their homes, a showdown is looming between Central Maine Power Co. and the Bath City Council over a recently passed moratorium.

The council voted three weeks ago for a 180-day ban on installations in the city, as well as an amendment requiring CMP to get permission from residents before switching out their old meters.

Bath’s ordinance runs counter to a landmark Public Utilities Commission decision last month that gives people alternatives, but makes them pay for the options.

In response, a lawyer representing CMP sent a letter earlier this month to the city’s attorney, saying it will challenge the ordinance in court unless Bath immediately rescinds it.

The council is expected to meet in executive session at 6 p.m. today, but Kyle Rogers, a city councilor who supported the ordinance, said Tuesday that he plans to make a motion to discuss smart-meter issues in public.

The pending showdown in Bath indicates that although regulators and CMP thought they had found a good compromise on smart meters, the matter remains controversial.

CMP is nearly halfway through a $200 million project to replace 600,000 mechanical meters with wireless digital versions. CMP says they will help the company and residents save money and manage power use. But some residents complain of problems ranging from health effects to malfunctions of home electronics that they link to the radio frequency network for the meters.

After months of study and public testimony, the PUC approved a first-in-the-nation plan to give choices to people who don’t want the meters. Those rules are still being finalized, but basically, customers who want to keep their existing meters would pay $40 upfront and $12 a month to cover the costs of maintaining the systems. The PUC agreed with CMP that the cost should be paid by customers who opt out, and not be shared by all ratepayers.

But some Bath councilors are unhappy with that approach.

“In my opinion, that’s like extortion,” Rogers said.

The ordinance and amendment were initiated by David Sinclair, the council’s vice chairman. He declined to discuss the matter Tuesday during a brief phone conversation.

In its letter to Bath, CMP noted that smart meters are now standard equipment for all customers, and that it’s providing an opt-out plan for those who don’t want one.

“The Bath ordinance simply is not needed to give customers in Bath the choice of whether or not to receive a smart meter,” the company’s lawyer wrote. “(The ordinance) will impose an obligation on Bath residents to pay the extra cost of a non-standard meter unless they affirmatively request what the PUC has determined is standard equipment.”

John Carroll, a CMP spokesman, said he was disappointed that the Bath council was inserting itself between the utility and its customers, essentially circumventing the intent of the PUC.

“The practical effect is it will add costs and accomplish nothing,” he said.

But a lead opponent of smart meters said CMP’s stance is a further example of the company acting like a bully. Elisa Boxer-Cook of Scarborough said she’s unaware of any other utilities that have threatened legal action against communities enacting smart-meter moratoriums.

In a broader sense, Boxer-Cook said, the evolving fight in Bath foreshadows an information war between CMP and its smart-meter adversaries. As the PUC rules and procedures are finalized, CMP is preparing to mail opt-out information to customers. It also has opt-out material on its website.

Meanwhile, Boxer-Cook and her group, the Smart Meter Safety Coalition, are beginning a series of question and answer sessions. The first one starts at 6:30 p.m. June 29 at Scarborough Town Hall.

 

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