HALLOWELL — For the time being, the public will remain in the dark about the cost details of a possible alternative to Central Maine Power Co.’s “smart” meter program.

Citing confidentiality with its vendors, CMP declined to reveal the cost Monday during a Maine Public Utilities Commission technical conference on CMP’s claim that an opt-out provision is not feasible.

The company received a grant in 2009 as part of the federal stimulus act to install Advanced Metering Infrastructure in its customer area, which includes new electric meters and repeaters that transmit usage information over wireless networks.

Once completed, the project will save CMP the cost of manual meter readers and provide immediate outage reports and the ability to turn off electricity to homes and businesses without having to go to the premises.

The project will also make it possible for residential customers to purchase power on an hourly rate, like large customers do, and choose to use appliances when electricity is cheaper.

But five complaints have been filed with the PUC by CMP customers concerned about the safety and cybersecurity of the wireless network and the meters, which emit radio frequency radiation that some say can cause medical problems.

The PUC launched an investigation two weeks ago into CMP’s claim that it is not possible to allow customers to opt out because of holes that would create in the grid and the cost of implementing two separate systems.

But those costs have not been made public. The company claims its only feasible option is to place smart meters further from concerned customers’ homes.

On Monday, CMP representatives said the cost of purchasing and installing smart meters should remain private.

“The total project costs for the network and IT would be confidential in contract provision with our vendors,” CMP attorney Ken Farber said.

However, the company agreed to provide the confidential information to the complainants and those who petitioned to intervene, as long as they all signed confidentiality agreements.

“CMP is hiding key information from its customers, literally blacking out key costs associated with opt-outs,” lead PUC complainant Elisa Boxer-Cook of Scarborough said. “We believe the public has a right to know this information, since every customer is affected by this project.”

Attorney Alan Stone, who represents Boxer-Cook, said the agreement to release the confidential information to those involved in the case was acceptable for now, but the company has a responsibility to release this information to all customers who are footing the bill.

“Any information that a public utility has – that’s why it’s called a public utility – should be provided to the general members of the public,” Stone said.

CMP did say that its current system of hourly data reporting used by large industrial and some residential customers runs through a phone line, not wirelessly, and costs $750 for each residential customer to purchase and install. This cost and the monthly fee for a dedicated phone line are paid for by the customers.

These meters only send information to CMP, and are not able to receive information, such as shut-off orders. The hard-wired hourly meters are scheduled to be replaced by smart meters.

“Overall, what we’ve noticed with CMP is that they’ve never once said, here’s how we can do this. They’ve only tried to show how they can’t,” Boxer-Cook said.

Bangor Hydro grid

Bangor Hydro, the state’s other large electricity distributor, has been using hard-wired meters for its customer data collection since 2005. Rather than wirelessly transmitting data, Bangor Hydro’s meters transmit via power lines.

“If the power goes out, we can ping the meters to verify if power is restored,” Bangor Hydro spokeswoman Susan Faloon said.

Bangor Hydro Project Manager Kendra Overlock explained that the company installed “callers” on many of its wired meters, which allow them to receive disconnect and reconnect commands.

“We do have two-way communication with the meters,” Overlock said.

Faloon said the company has not yet rolled out an hourly rate system, but that customers can view detailed reports of their past usage online. The company plans a pilot plan for hourly pricing for approximately 100 of its 117,000 customers this spring.

Commissioners asked CMP whether offering a similar hard-wired meter to those who wish to opt out of the wireless meters might be a solution.

CMP representatives said running both the wireless and hard-wired systems at the same time would mean doubling the fixed costs, such as software and substation hardware, estimated at more than $53 million for a system that runs through the phone lines.

“Using the Bangor Hydro solution to serve a small number of CMP customers is cost prohibitive,” CMP consultant Gary Fauth said.

The breakdown of the $53 million estimate was considered part of the confidential agreement between CMP and its vendors and was not made available to the public.

CMP spokesman John Carroll said a powerline carrier system like Bangor Hydro’s would be more expensive than the phone line system.

“The telephone line system is something we can slide in parallel (with the wireless system),” Carroll said. “It’s still expensive, but not anywhere near what a powerline carrier would be.”

While the technical conference will continue after requests for data from CMP are fulfilled, the smart meters have already been installed on more than 100,000 homes and businesses.

Rep. Heather Sirocki, R-Scarborough, who attended the technical conference Monday, said she has submitted legislation that would require CMP to offer an opt-out solution such as a hardwired meter, at the customer’s expense.

“I’m trying to be reasonable,” Sirocki said. “CMP would have the ultimate say in what that fee might be.”

Similar bills have also been submitted by Reps. Andrea Boland, D-Sanford, and Ben Chipman, U-Portland.

Fire hazards

On Tuesday, another technical conference took place in response to a PUC complaint that claimed installation of the smart meters could cause fires in homes with older wiring.

“Some engineers believe there may be at least a theoretical reason, in some cases, where a wireless smart meter signal could overload electrical wires and cause or contribute to an electrical fire in older homes with outdated wiring or homes that are not grounded,” said Richard Taylor, senior research and planning analyst at Maine fire marshal’s office in a Jan. 21 letter from complainant Averyl Hill to the PUC.

The Jan. 25 technical conference required CMP to explain the training process for its meter installers. The PUC has not yet decided whether to investigate this complaint.

Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or [email protected]

Sidebar Elements

Public Advocate Eric Bryant, left, and complainants Dianne Wilkins of Falmouth and Sue Foley-Ferguson and Elisa Boxer-Cook, both of Scarborough, sit with attorneys Greg Frame and Alan Stone during the Maine Public Utilities Commission technical conference Monday in Hallowell on CMP’s refusal to allow customers to opt out of “smart” electric meter installations. Complainants have concerns about health, fire and cybersafety with the wireless meters.

Scarborough resident Sue Foley-Ferguson, right, talks with Rep. Heather Sirocki, R-Scarborough, during a break at a technical conference discussing Central Maine Power Co.’s “smart” electrical meters at the Maine Public Utilities Commission Monday in Hallowell. Sirocki said she has submitted a bill that would require the company to allow customers to opt out of the wireless meters at the customer’s expense.

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