by Elisa Hawkes
Coastal Journal staff
BATH — In Bath and other locations around the state, consumers have fought for the option of refusing the installation of smart meters by Central Maine Power (CMP) on their dwellings without an associated cost. Opponents of the meters cite studies claiming mild to severe adverse effects.
On Thursday, July 12, the Maine Supreme Court ruled the state’s Public Utility Commission (PUC) must review health and safety concerns regarding smart meters. The court said the PUC failed to adequately address safety concerns in the past. The court’s decision has no immediate effect on the more than 600,000 smart meters already installed across the state.
CMP denies claims regarding the alleged effects of smart meters. The company says the meters increase the reliability of energy grids and are critical to energy conservation.
A smart meter is an electrical device that records the consumption of energy in near real-time, or real-time. The meters are used for monitoring purposes, but unlike home energy monitors, smart meters can report the information back to the energy company. CMP, for example, may then use the information for billing and analysis purposes. The smart meters emit radio frequency radiation (RF), but studies vary as to the health risks posed by the amount of RF to which customers are exposed and the effects of RF in general.
In Bath, the city council forced CMP to institute an “opt-in” rather than an “opt-out” policy for smart meters. This means customers have to specifically inform CMP they want the meter installed rather than having it put in place by default.
CMP charges a one-time $40 fee and a monthly $12 fee in perpetuity to customers who opt not to have the meters installed. Another option is to install a smart meter that emits no radio signal. The electric company reads it once every two months. The cost for this option is a $20 one-time fee and $10.50 every month thereafter.
Many customers feel this violates their civil rights, in that they must pay to keep what they consider to be a harmful device away from themselves and their families. If they can’t afford to do this, they are forced to live in harm’s way.
Bath City Council Chair David Sinclair said in a May interview with the Coastal Journal that the ordinance, which as been in existence for approximately a year, forbids the installation of smart meters in Bath without prior consent of the resident. He said the intention of the ordinance was to protect Bath residents from potentially harmful effects of the operation of smart meters and risky security issues.
Regarding the July 12 court decision, Sinclair said, “Personally, and on behalf of concerned citizens of Bath, I am very pleased that the Law Court is holding the MPUC to its statutory obligation to ensure that public utilities provide safe, reasonable, and adequate service to all Mainers.
“It was a difficult topic for the Council, and a difficult topic for the community, but a clear-cut issue for the Law Court, which unanimously ruled that the MPUC cannot simply sidestep its duty to address the issue of ‘smart meter’ safety.”
Maine Public Utilities Commission was ordered to reconsider a complaint raised and lead by plaintiff Ed Friedman of Bowdoinham. He asked the panel to use the opportunity “to hold full evidentiary hearings on this and look at it under the bright lights.”
The Maine Public Utilities Commission issued a brief statement saying the panel is contemplating how best to follow the court’s directive.
“The commission is reviewing the order to determine what steps must be taken to comply with the court’s decision. We have not reached a decision on what process will be required to do so. Any decision about process will be determined by commissioners in a public session,” the statement said.
In 2010, CMP began replacing their 615,000 analog meters with smart meters. The project cost $200 million, approximately half of which was funded with federal stimulus dollars. The replacement project is almost complete, with around 2,000 meters left to install.
CMP said in a prepared statement that the court did not order them to stop installing the meters. They intend to continue installations until the PUC decides on a course of action.
John Carroll, a company spokesman, said, “The [smart meter] system is largely in place, and we are using it on a daily basis.”
A moratorium on installations was passed the Bath City Council, with similar legislation in Cape Elizabeth and Scarborough. The three towns brought a joint complaint before the PUC concerning safety issues regarding the smart meters.
Originally, the PUC said RF radiation from the meters does not pose a safety concern, citing data from federal and state sources. However, Friedman specifically cited a World Health Organization report from May 2011 that categorized RF radiation as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.”
“If there is conflicting evidence, how can you possibly ensure safety?” Friedman said.
Friedman is hoping for a total recall of the meters after evidence is presented to the PUC. A PUC meeting will be held Tuesday, July 24, at 10 a.m. at 101 Second St. in Hallowell.