SCARBOROUGH – Central Maine Power calls them the technology of the future that will help consumers better manage electricity and help the environment. Others call them an unnecessary health risk.

On Monday, Nov. 29, the two groups will come together to talk about the so-called “smart meters” at a public meeting at 7 p.m. at the Scarborough Municipal Building. The meeting will be moderated by Scarborough Town Manager Tom Hall, but will not be an official municipal meeting or a council proceeding, although Hall said he expects many if not all of Scarborough’s town councilors to attend. The meeting is open to everyone, not just residents of Scarborough.

The trick to the meeting, Hall said, will be figuring out a way to make sure everyone in attendance has a chance to have their questions answered and their concerns aired.

“In my experience, a give-and-take, question-and-answer format will not work. I want to have everyone who comes out be heard,” he said.

The meeting is the result of a resolution passed by the Scarborough Town Council Oct. 20, in which the board urged CMP not to install the devices in town for at least 90 days, or until CMP provided residents an opportunity to have a public forum on their health and privacy concerns.

The resolution also urged CMP to modify the program to provide a choice for those who do not want the meter. Cape Elizabeth adopted a similar resolution Nov. 8, and the South Portland City Council held a workshop session Monday to discuss adopting a resolution.

CMP has agreed to stop installing smart meters in Scarborough until the 90-day time period on the resolution expires. The company continues to install the meters in Cape Elizabeth and other communities.

Like CMP’s existing meters, a smart meter measures and records the electricity use of a home or business. Unlike existing meters, however, smart meters transmit the data to the company over a wireless system, giving CMP an up-to-date recording of the customer’s electricity use.

Critics of the system have argued the meters put individuals’ health at risk by exposing them to unsafe levels of radio frequency. CMP argues that the radio frequency from the meters is brief and safe. The frequency from a microwave is 313 times greater than that from a smart meter, and the frequency from a cell phone is 12,667 times greater, the company argues.

“We really want to give the public an opportunity to ask questions of CMP,” said John Carroll, a spokesman for the utility. “They have not had that opportunity as of yet and there is a lot of information circulating around, some of which we would agree with and some of which we would not consider a fair characterization of our technology.”

“We want people to understand the technology is about creating information and choices for the consumer to help them use electricity more wisely,” he added. “That’s a win-win for the consumer and the environment.”

Nevertheless, led by Scarborough resident Elisa Boxer-Cook, a group, mostly from Scarborough, instituted a citizen complaint against CMP with the Maine Public Utilities Commission, asking that the company stop installing the smart meters until a scientific study is done and that residents be allowed to decline installation.

The complaint is currently before the commission. Carroll said how the company deals with those complaints out depends on those proceedings.

Right now, he said, CMP is respecting homeowners’ requests not to have a smart meter installed, but the PUC proceedings will determine if an opt-out system could be instituted.

The goal for CMP, however, Carroll said, is to “have a single technology across our system.”

This lack of an opt out is what South Portland resident Teresa Swinbourne said upsets her the most.

“My biggest concern is the lack of choice,” said Swinbourne, who lives on Chase Street. “In our homes we can choose how many wireless devices we want to have. With this everyone will have wireless exposure.”

While Carroll said the smart meters will help CMP customers better manage electricity, it will also help CMP service its customers.

For the last 100 years, Carroll said, CMP employees have been going from customer to customer once a month to get one simple piece of information – the amount of electricity used.

“That’s the way things operated at the turn of the 20th century and that’s the same model that CMP has been using since then,” he said. “The technology is way beyond that. We are moving from a late 19th century to a 21st-century technology.”

The new system would save the company from driving 2 million miles, saving 1,500 tons of carbon dioxide released in the environment, he said.

“This is probably one of the most important technologies available in the state in terms of helping consumers manage their energy use, helping to reduce and conserve electricity and helping the environment,” he said.

But Ange Foley, of Beverly Terrace in Cape Elizabeth, said she worries about the system interfering with cell phones, computers, baby monitors or even medical devices, such as hearing aids or pain medication dispensers used in some households.

Her concern, she told the Cape Elizabeth Town Council earlier this month, stems from the fact there is limited opt-out if residents do not want the system installed at their home. CMP, she said, has been installing the systems at homes when no one is there, leaving only a little flyer alerting the homeowner that the system was installed.

Absent, Foley said, is any information addressing the health concerns that many have expressed.

“I believe it is crucial to err on the side of caution with high-frequency wireless technology that forces exposure to multiple new layers of radio frequency radiation, especially since the U.S. allows products on the market until they are proven harmful,” said Dr. Karen Emery, a pediatrician at Falmouth Pediatrics and a resident of Cape Elizabeth who was quoted by Boxer-Cook’s group. “I don’t believe we should install smart meters and wait for the science to conclusively show no risk, because by then it will be too late. We owe it to our children and future generations to make sure this technology will not be causing ill effects prior to installing it.”

“There is definitely cause for concern, especially given that no health studies have been conducted on smart meters, and there are reports of health effects in other parts of the country where the meters have been installed,” said Dr. Magili Chapman Quinn, a physician at Osteopathic Family Medicine in Falmouth and Portland also quoted by the citizen group. “Those are red flags.”

Carroll said although he understands the health concerns, they are unfounded.

“We are using, in our opinion, a technology that is safe,” he said. “It is a common wireless technology. We believe it is safe and it meets all the standards of federal regulations.”

The reports CMP has disseminated about smart meters, Swinbourne, of South Portland, said, have shown the health impact of the devices to be inconclusive.

“There have been many examples in the technology history of America where things have seemed to be OK and in the long term have not been,” she said. “The bottom line is we just don’t know. We are guinea pigs. We are going on blind faith and inconclusive studies.”

Julie Tupper of South Portland, who has spoken publicly about her concerns to both Scarborough and South Portland officials, said she has not had the system installed at her house, and won’t because of what it will do to her immune system.

“My concerns are the health risks involved,” she said. “I happen to be one of the lucky ones who is very sensitive to (electromagnetic field) frequency. I don’t hold a cell phone to my ear and I have had all the wireless technology pulled from the house. I have created a safety zone at my house.”

Although she does not have a smart meter at her home, they have been installed in her neighborhood and she said she can feel the difference.

When exposed to wireless radiation, Tupper said, she suffers from achy bones, headaches, dizziness and shakiness.

“It compromises my immune system and when your immune system is compromised that is when people get sick,” she said.

“People need to know what is happening to them,” she added. “There is no choice. CMP would like to blanket Maine with this wireless technology.”

Carroll said CMP is not the only entity using the technology. It is already in place all across the country, including here in Maine. The Portland Water District and Bangor Hydro-Electricity use similar wireless technology to remotely read customers’ meters.

CMP has already installed the new systems in more than 15,000 homes in the greater Portland area. The plan is to install the meters in all of the 620,000 homes of CMP customers by 2012.

The cost of replacing the existing meters with digital ones – $96 million – is funded through the Smart Grid Investment Grant, a program of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

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