HALLOWELL – Nearly all of Central Maine Power Co.’s smart meters are up, 615,000 of them. Now, state regulators must decide whether they pose health and safety risks to customers.
Tulips will be blooming again, at least, before that determination is made.
The Maine Public Utilities Commission, which met Thursday, is now gearing up for several months of complicated testimony regarding smart meters.
The commission thought it had addressed health and safety questions in 2010, when the issue was first raised.
But last month, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court sided with opponents of the new-technology digital meters, who argued that regulators ignored their legal mandate to ensure the delivery of “safe, reasonable and adequate” utility service.
Two weeks later, the commissioners voted to investigate the wireless devices. CMP argued that the scope of the review should be narrow and focused on the legal requirement. The commissioners pledged to move quickly.
That’s not going to happen.
At Thursday’s meeting, opponents succeeded in pushing for a fully litigated case, which will involve reams of written and oral testimony from expert witnesses and aggrieved residents, rebuttals and discovery, hearings and, finally, deliberations.
No one can say what the outcome will mean, since all of the meters will be up and running.
“Somebody’s got to conclude that they’re safe,” said Bruce McGlauflin, an attorney representing lead complainants in the case. “It’s not enough to say they’re not convinced of the level of risk.”
Following a PUC order in 2010, CMP began switching out its analog meters with smart meters. The $200 million project received half of its funding from federal stimulus dollars.
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.
In a related development, CMP said Thursday that 60,000 customers, most of them in York County, now can access their hourly power use data online.
The capability is being rolled out slowly as the wireless network is finished. Customers who pay bills electronically are being notified when Web access is available in their area. Later this year, CMP hopes to make the information available to all customers, a spokesman said.
A small, vocal minority of customers isn’t interested in those features. They say the radio-frequency radiation emitted by the wireless meters can cause health problems that include sleep loss and dizziness, and invade privacy because of the information they collect.
In an effort to address those concerns, the PUC allows customers to opt out of having the meters, if they pay a $12 monthly fee to cover the cost of alternative equipment and meter readers. More than 8,500 customers have made that choice so far.
More than a dozen of them have formally intervened in the investigation case, and several participated in Thursday’s meeting.
At the start, Kenneth Farber, CMP’s legal counsel, sought to focus the case on the Supreme Court’s legal argument.
He noted that the meters emit radio-frequency levels that are well below Federal Communications Commission guidelines, and that the PUC should adopt those standards and assume CMP isn’t engaging in an unsafe or unreasonable practice.
Farber said the company would never have installed any equipment that posed a threat to its customers.
But McGlauflin said the court’s message is that it is up to the Maine PUC to ensure safety. A full hearing in which experts can present evidence is needed, he said, not just a nod to FCC guidelines.
“Consumers have the right to feel safe and secure in their homes,” he said.
Mitchell Tannenbaum, a veteran PUC lawyer who’s in charge of the proceeding, acquiesced to the demand for a full case. He said he is confident that the PUC’s staff has the technical ability to review the evidence and make a recommendation to the commission.
In presenting the evidence, CMP said it will rely heavily on an updated version of testimony it gave in 2010, when the meters were first challenged before the PUC. The testimony came from national experts, scientists and epidemiologists who had studied exposures and biological health.
Opponents said they, too, will call on national experts, as well as Maine residents who suffer health problems that they link to the meters.
Also discussed was a proposal by Richard Davies, the state’s public advocate, to hire an independent expert to test the levels of radio-frequency output at various homes where CMP has installed the meters.
Based on a rough schedule set Thursday, CMP will submit testimony for its case Sept. 19. Intervenors will follow Dec. 3. Hearings in the case are set for early March.
Public hearings in which residents could speak out could be scheduled at some point.
The staff will make its recommendations to the commission in the spring, with a ruling likely in May.
Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at: