HALLOWELL — In voting Tuesday to investigate the health and safety of wireless “smart meters,” the Maine Public Utilities Commission set in motion a legal and technical case that’s expected to be followed nationally by the power industry and citizen activists.

While it’s too soon to say how comprehensive Maine’s review will be, no state utility agency has held public hearings or conducted its own research into whether radio-frequency radiation from the digital devices is harmful to electric customers, according to Dan Richman, who has spent three years covering the topic for the online trade publication Smart Grid Today.

“If Maine commissions original research or holds hearings, it would be the first time a PUC had done that,” Richman said.

California’s PUC did its own review of smart-meter research literature but hasn’t held hearings, Richman said. Original research could take years and be very costly, he added.

The time frame and scope of the new proceeding are still being decided, but David Littell, one of the two commissioners who will decide the case, said he wanted to move quickly. The commission’s order, released Tuesday afternoon, calls for key parties to meet Aug. 2 to consider a schedule and to review petitions to intervene.

The order comes nearly two weeks after the Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the PUC failed to resolve health and safety issues when it approved Central Maine Power Co.’s installation of smart meters.

In a decision released on July 12, the court sided with opponents of the digital meters, who argued that regulators ignored their legal mandate to ensure the delivery of “safe, reasonable and adequate service.”

At the same time, the court didn’t agree with the argument that the meters violate constitutional issues related to privacy and trespass. It’s likely that opponents will file a motion this week asking the court to reconsider the privacy and security issues, according to Bruce McGlauflin, a lawyer representing smart meter foes.

The PUC’s action reopens public debate over an issue that has drawn national attention and led some electric customers to pay extra each month not to have one of the wireless units installed at their homes.

The $200 million project, which received half of its funding from federal stimulus dollars, is now largely complete. The fact that nearly 615,000 new meters have been installed raises the question of what utility regulators could do if they determined that the meters are a threat to health and safety.

In an interview following the deliberations, Littell declined to comment on the practical effect of any decision, or whether it would even be possible to replace the meters.

“We’re going to look hard at this issue,” he said of the health and safety complaints.

Smart meters transmit information about electricity using wireless technology that emits radio frequency radiation, similar to a mobile phone.

Many utilities around the world are moving to smart meters, which can give customers more information about their energy use patterns and allow power companies to pinpoint problems during outages. The companies maintain the equipment is safe and no different than other common wireless devices, such as cellphones.

But opponents say the radio-frequency radiation emitted by the wireless meters can cause health problems, including sleep loss and dizziness, and are an invasion of privacy because of the information they collect.

While radiation also is emitted from devices such as cellphones and wireless networks, smart meters have become a “flashpoint,” McGlauflin said, because they now are a government mandate.

“People are being forced to have these things in their homes,” McGlauflin said.

As the PUC case unfolds, smart meter foes such as Ed Friedman, the lead plaintiff who brought the case to the Supreme Judicial Court, will try to expand the scope of the investigation. They will push for testimony from experts who have documented health problems that they link to smart meters.

After Tuesday’s deliberations, Friedman said he’d like to see all the new devices taken out and replaced with non-wireless meters.

Elisa Boxer, who organized the initial opposition to smart meters two years ago, said she’d like public hearings held around the state, making it possible to receive testimony from people who say they have suffered health problems since the meters were installed.

“All along, I just wanted the truth to come out,” she said.

CMP, on the other hand, is expected to press for a limited review.

“The commissioners agreed to open a proceeding on the narrow issues remanded by the court, as we expected,” said John Carroll, CMP’s spokesman. “We do appreciate their interest in moving the matter ahead expeditiously.”

The controversy in Maine began with a PUC order in 2010, which started CMP on the path of switching out its analog meters with smart meters. Soon after, some residents began complaining about various health impacts and concerns that they believe are linked to the meters and the wireless network that connects them.

The PUC had said there was no need for the panel to tackle safety concerns that already had been addressed by federal agencies. It also took note of a review of research literature by Maine’s Center for Disease Control that found no evidence to support concerns for health effects.

As a compromise aimed at addressing the health concerns, the PUC allowed customers to opt out of smart meter installation. But they must pay $40 up front and a $12 monthly fee to cover the cost of alternative equipment and meter readers.

That arrangement didn’t satisfy Friedman and several customers, who filed a complaint seeking a full investigation by Maine regulators. The PUC declined to do that, and the customers appealed the commission’s dismissal to the law court.

To date, roughly 8,500 customers have opted out, according to CMP.

Opponents including Friedman think that number would be higher if the opt-out charge were eliminated. In Vermont, lawmakers this spring voted to allow customers to opt out, with no fee, while regulators evaluate the actual costs of the program.

Tuesday’s decision to open an investigation was approved by Littell and a recently appointed commissioner, Mark Vannoy. The Maine PUC’s chairman, Thomas Welch, is not participating in the smart meter deliberations because of previous private-practice work he performed for CMP.

Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at:

tturkel@mainetoday.com