As installation of smart meters continues, so does consumer push back

Posted Aug. 20, 2011, at 5:13 p.m.

MONROE, Maine — Although Central Maine Power already has converted nearly half of its 620,000 accounts in the state to digital smart meters, some midcoast area customers are continuing to fight back against the change.

The wireless electrical meters will be able to more precisely detect energy usage and the electric utility began converting to the new standard in October after the the Maine Public Utilities Commission in 2009 asked it to upgrade its grid and meter system. It’s expected to be completed in the first quarter of 2012.

But opponents of the wireless meters believe that the radio signals can cause health problems and that their usage is an invasion of privacy, among other concerns. The power company has made it possible for residential and commercial customers to opt out of the smart meters — for an additional installation and monthly fee — but that is not enough for some.

“In my opinion, the meters are dangerous,” said Allyn Beecher of Monroe last week.

He was leading a sparsely-attended informational meeting held Tuesday evening at the Monroe Town Office to let residents know about a proposed six-month moratorium on the installation of the meters. The vote, to be taken at 7 p.m. Wednesday at a special town meeting, will let the community decide whether or not to agree to the moratorium.

One of the six people present termed the switch to smart meters, with its attendant privacy concerns, “Orwellian.”

“This is like the ministry of fear,” said Monroe summer resident Ric Berger. “This becomes incredibly complex science fiction. Maybe science reality.”

Earlier this summer, the Bath City Council passed an ordinance that will block installation of the smart meters for six months unless individual homeowners give explicit permission ahead of time to the utility.

The default meter in Bath now is the old electromechanical meter, which will cost all customers an extra fee. The utility is charging people $40 initially and then $12 each month to keep the old system and its meter readers. In order to have a smart meter that has had its technology disabled, it will cost consumers an initial $20 fee and then $10.50 each month.

In Camden, where CMP has temporarily halted all installation of smart meters until it can mail notices to consumers beforehand, all midcoast residents are invited to attend a public forum Tuesday night that is titled “Smart Meters: A Dumb Idea.”

Nancy Caudle-Johnson of the Camden Smart Meter Safety Coaltion, said that she believes that the radio waves from the smart meters are dangerous and can make people sick. She thinks that it would be possible to have the same type of efficiencies in other ways, and that for many customers paying more money each month in order to avoid the smart meters is not fair.

“What I care about is delivering information to people so they can make an informed decision for themselves and their families,” she said.

However, according to CMP spokesman John Carroll, smart meters have been determined to be safe by the Maine Center for Disease Control and also by the Maine Public Utilities Commission. It’s now the default technology for measuring electric usage.

“What we’re really talking about is wireless communication technology,” he said, adding that this is also used in cell phones, baby monitors, wireless Internet routers and even garage door openers. “It’s a great project. It’s a great technology.”

Some of the benefits of a smart grid include having more reliable power service through shorter and fewer outages, providing customers tools to manage their energy consumption and enabling the U.S. to rely more heavily on clean, renewable energy, according to the Environmental Defense Fund, which supports the switch to smart grid.

The government does, too. Carroll said that CMP received $96 million from the federal government to install the smart meters, which is half the total cost of installation.

He said that it can be frustrating when what what he called “only one to two percent” of customers who are opposed to the smart meters receiving more than an equal share of attention.

“We’re being diverted by this minority of people,” he said.

Someone who shared his feelings on that point was another one of the six attendees at the Monroe information meeting. Although the woman, a farmer, chose not to share her name, before the session began she said that her farm’s energy usage was surely greater than everyone else’s in the room combined.

She said that calling a special meeting to vote on the moratorium was foolish.

“To me, it’s wasting the town’s money,” she said.

But that is not how Caudle-Johnson sees it.

“I think back to things like lead, cigarettes, DDT, BPA — we were told they were perfectly safe,” she said. “The industry lobbyists said they were perfectly safe, and they weren’t. The industry is saying ‘trust us.’ And that’s a bad, bad idea.”

The public forum titled “Smart Meters: A Dumb Idea” will be held 7-9 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 23, at the First Congregational Church in Camden. The featured speaker will be Elisa Boxer-Cook of Scarborough, the founder of the Maine Smart Meter Safety Coalition.

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