Smart meters raising fears of job losses

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Posted Jan. 22, 2010, at 7:27 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine’s largest utility is asking the Public Utilities Commission to approve its plans to install the latest in “smart” meter technology, using a federal recovery act grant to pay for half of the $191 million project.

But lawmakers are worried about the policy implications of Central Maine Power’s proposal and the irony of the use of recovery act money that is supposed to create jobs to help fund a project that will eliminate 141 positions.

“That has to be a concern,” said Sen. Barry Hobbins, D-Saco, co-chairman of the Legislature’s Utilities Committee. “Those funds were to create jobs.”

CMP spokesman John Carroll said the proposal does create jobs. He said the federal grant pays for half the cost of the project with the remainder funded by savings expected from the implementation of the new system.

“We estimate it will generate 200 construction jobs,” he said. “Our share of the cost is fully covered by the reduction in the costs we will have. There is no cost to the ratepayers.”

Rep. Ken Fletcher, R-Winslow, said that is technically true. But he said with half of the cost coming from the taxpayers through the recovery act grant, ratepayers are paying for half the project.

“We are all ratepayers and we are all taxpayers,” he said. “It’s all coming out of the same wallet. Just because it is federal money, it is not free money.”

Fletcher said the PUC needs to weigh the project on the basis of its total cost, not just the CMP portion. He said the benefits to ratepayers need to outweigh the total cost of the project for it to be approved.

Because of the far reaching implications of the project to state energy policy, Hobbins said he will ask the PUC to provide an inventory of proposed power projects and an analysis of the potential impact the meter project will have on other projects — such as new transmission line proposals — that are under consideration.

“We need to look at all of this broadly,” he said.

The CMP proposal would install the latest technology that has meters capable of measuring customer usage in small time increments, and it will have a central computer that can instantly track that information and provide other data that will allow the utility to better manage electricity demands.

“There are some benefits to consumers if this is done right, and we are working to make sure it is done right,” said Public Advocate Richard Davies. He said the meters can be used to bring down costs by helping customers use less power during those times of the year — like hot summer afternoons — when power is the most expensive.

“But I have been reading some of the same stories from California and Connecticut and other places where this has not been done right,” he said.

In those states, problems with some of the meters have caused angry responses from consumers that had their bills increase even when they used less electricity. Davies said it is difficult for consumers to go from paying the same amount per kilowatt hour regardless of the time of day they use the energy to having higher or lower rates, depending on the time of day they use the electricity.

“We know it does cost more to generate power at peak demand times, but consumers don’t see that now,” he said. “There needs to be a significant education program if this is going to be successful.”

Davies said the use of the Advanced Metering Infrastructure could lead to people using less energy during peak periods, and that would be good news. But he said it could be bad news for customers that do not want the complications of using smart meters or have a medical condition that requires constant use of an electrical device.

“We are working to protect consumers,” he said.

Davies said the state has some experience with the new meter technology with 97 percent of Bangor Hydro customers now using meters that allow for remote reading of usage as well as the detection of power failures. Bangor Hydro is going forward with a project to reach the remaining 3,000 customers that do not have the meters.

“This project directly aligns with our business strategy to provide in-home energy solutions to benefit customers,” Bangor Hydro president and chief operating officer Gerry Chasse said in a statement.

But the Bangor Hydro system does not have the centralized computer system proposed by CMP that provides for additional options to the company and consumers.

“We are looking at at least providing Web-based access to customers of the information from the meters,” Carroll said. “But customers can make other decisions to use other devices that may allow them to read the meter results at home.”

He said the new system will also allow customers to negotiate with their energy supplier to buy power at different prices during the day to take advantage of lower prices during portions of the day. CMP distributes the energy, but does not supply the energy.

“This could create a lot of competition among suppliers and that could help consumers get a better deal,” Carroll said.

The CMP proposal would affect all of its approximately 600,000 residential, commercial and industrial customers.

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