The growing debate over whether Central Maine Power Co. customers should be allowed to opt out of the company’s smart meter installation program will enter a new phase today, with parties set to meet privately to negotiate a possible settlement.

At issue is whether it’s technically and financially possible for CMP to offer alternatives, and who would pay the extra costs associated with them.

This matter is formally being examined by the Maine Public Utilities Commission, which last year approved CMP’s plan to replace 620,000 mechanical meters with wireless, digital devices.

With encouragement from the PUC staff, CMP has agreed to meet with complainants and key intervenors in the case to seek common ground outside of the official process. As in a court case, the idea is to find solutions that can avert costly legal action.

CMP has installed 135,000 smart meters so far. About 3,300 customers — 2 percent — have asked not to have the meters at their homes and businesses. CMP insists that it must switch out all meters for the system to achieve maximum benefits, but it’s honoring opt-out requests for the time being.

Two-way communication between smart meters and CMP will enable the utility to respond more quickly to outages and manage energy demand. The meters also will let customers track hourly power use and, eventually, run appliances when prices are lowest.

But some residents worry about health effects from the radio frequency waves that the meters emit and other issues, including privacy and security.

The PUC voted earlier this winter to investigate whether CMP’s policy of not letting customers opt out of the program is unreasonable or discriminatory. The probe is narrow by design; it’s not meant to determine whether smart meters present a health or security risk.

CMP has said the issues being raised in Maine, and the potential solutions, are relevant across the country, where more than 40 million smart meters are being installed. “How Maine addresses these questions is being closely watched,” said John Carroll, a CMP spokesman.

The health question is being pressed in a separate complaint, filed with the PUC last week by 10 customers who say they have had or are having adverse effects from smart meters installed at their homes or in their neighborhoods. They want the PUC to investigate whether it’s reasonable to set up “smart meter-free areas” around homes of people who have physical problems linked to the wireless devices.

CMP has yet to respond to the formal complaint, and the PUC has taken no action.

Today’s settlement talks at PUC headquarters in Hallowell will be closed to the public. CMP is expected to discuss options it has evaluated at the request of the PUC.

One idea is to install a digital meter but not hook it up to a wireless network. A worker would visit six times a year and download data into a hand-held reader. That option would cost $124 for installation and $9.95 a month, CMP estimates.

A major question for today’s discussion is who would pay that cost.

“Our position is that we don’t want to add costs for the rest of our customers,” Carroll said.

The overall price could depend on what standards the PUC sets for customers to opt out. If all ratepayers had to cover the total cost, tens of thousands of customers might make that choice, Carroll said, which could create big gaps in the wireless network and make it harder for CMP to restore power after outages.

Most people who are disturbed by wireless signals simply want to have a choice, said Elisa Boxer-Cook of Scarborough, a leading opponent of smart meters who initiated the case that will be negotiated today. They would be willing to pay for an alternative if the price isn’t prohibitive, she said.

Today’s talks are just the start of an effort to identify the best options and agree on the costs, said Eric Bryant, a staff attorney in the state Public Advocate’s Office. Technical options appear to exist, Bryant said, and if the costs are acceptable and customers are willing to pay them, his office would support their right to opt out of the smart meter program.

If settlement talks fail, the case will proceed through the formal PUC process, which would include legal briefs and hearings. A new settlement could be proposed at any time.

In earlier testimony, CMP argued that suggested alternatives to wireless meters, namely letting customers keep their mechanical meters or installing smart meters with dedicated phone lines, would cost too much money. It also said those options would fail to meet the state’s policy objectives and may threaten $96 million in federal funds for the two-year project.

Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at: [email protected]

 


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