HALLOWELL – Maine’s Public Utilities Commission voted Thursday to audit Central Maine Power Co.’s smart meter program, to determine whether it is saving money and providing the benefits that were expected when the commission approved it in 2010.

Commissioners David Littel and Mark Vannoy voted for the audit. Chairman Tom Welch did not participate in the deliberations; he worked on smart meters for CMP when he was in private practice.

The vote paves the way for the PUC to hire a consultant to audit the program. The process could take several months.

The PUC’s staff says CMP has mismanaged its smart meter program, costing customers millions of dollars rather than saving them money, and failing to provide the expected energy savings and operational benefits.

CMP disagrees, saying the meters were installed on budget and have already begun saving money, with greater benefits coming in the future.

So far, very few CMP customers appear interested in the limited data offered by smart meters, or in using electricity when rates are cheaper.

The audit will help to determine whether that is because of a current lack of interest or whether CMP could have done a better job making products and services available.

If the commission determines that CMP could have done better, it could keep the utility from recovering some of the program’s expenses in rates.

Digital meters are one link in what energy experts call a smart grid, an evolving system in which computers and automation help maintain and upgrade the reliability of the nation’s electrical network.

The meters are fast replacing analog meters in the United States. More than 35 million had been installed by the first half of last year, and 65 million will be in place by 2016, according to the Edison Foundation.

In Maine, 600,000 meters are operating in an 11,000-square-mile wireless network. The network lets CMP calculate bills without sending workers to read meters, and lets customers know how much electricity they’re using at various times.

When the meters were first installed, CMP estimated that the net savings to ratepayers would total $25 million over the 20-year life of the equipment. But the PUC staff says that won’t happen.

Rather than saving money, the program will cost customers about $80 million over the period, the staff says, and CMP shouldn’t be able to recover that cost in rates.

In a rebuttal filed last week with the PUC, the utility notes that a total of 13 audits of the program will be done by year’s end, internally and by the federal government, and no audit has revealed big issues with cost, management or the capabilities of the system.

But after Thursday’s vote, Littel and Vannoy said that, for customers’ confidence, it’s important for the program to have an independent, transparent audit.

 

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

tturkel@mainetoday.com