They may be called “smart meters,” but the multiple controversies that accompanied their implementation in Maine and other places have not left the impression that all their implications were fully thought out.

Last week, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court appeared to agree, handing down a ruling that took the state’s Public Utilities Commission to task for not resolving health and safety issues raised about the meters’ installation.

That may or may not mean much, because the meters have been installed on nearly every house served by Central Maine Power Co. whose owners didn’t directly refuse them. Such opt-outs were authorized by the PUC after some Mainers complained about having them installed.

The meters are digital, not analog like the older ones they replaced, and can be read at a distance because they broadcast power usage data automatically. They permit power companies to compute electricity loads and track use by individual households.

That let the meters be promoted as a necessary entry point to someday implementing “time-of-day” pricing, a method of encouraging energy use when overall demand is low and discouraging it at times of high usage, such as hot summer days when air conditioners are running at maximum output all over the state.

And they save power companies money because they don’t have to be checked manually by workers.

But there was a problem: Some customers didn’t want a device that broadcast radio-frequency signals attached to their houses, sending invisible waves out in every direction.

Fearing that such things might be harmful to their health, they protested strongly to the PUC, which granted an exception that allowed the old meters to stay where homeowners demanded them — but at an added cost of $12 per month to pay the meter readers who still had to stop by those houses.

So the dissidents sued, and last week won their case on health and safety grounds, although the court dismissed claims that the meters violated constitutional privacy and property rights.

But because the ruling did not include a stay order, CMP can continue to install the new meters and use them to collect data, while the PUC takes up the task of applying the court’s order retroactively.

How that will work out remains to be seen, but it could well be that the plaintiffs may have won a battle in court, but still could lose the war over the use of the meters themselves.


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