Maine State Rep files bill to fight Smart Meters opt-out fee

Susan Morse
By Susan Morse at
November 13, 2011 2:00 AM

YORK, Maine — As Central Maine Power installs Smart Meters in southern York County, a group of ratepayers has brought its fight against the wireless technology to the state Supreme Judicial Court and a South Berwick lawmaker is filing emergency legislation to prevent CMP from charging fees to customers who opt-out.

CMP is replacing all analog electric meters with Smart Meters at no charge for its 620,000 customers statewide. So far an estimated 420,000 have been installed, according to CMP spokesman John Carroll. An estimated 1 percent have opted out of the program, he said.

In southern York County, installation is about 50 percent complete, Carroll said Thursday. Most local customers were mailed opt-out options over the summer. The requested deadline to decide was early September, but customers still have the ability to opt out. Those who choose to keep their current analog meter are charged an up-front cost of $40, and will be billed an additional $12 a month.

Rep. Roberta Beavers, D-South Berwick, is protesting the fee, in emergency legislation she is presenting Thursday, Nov. 17, to the Legislative Council.

“I’ve heard from people all over the state who are outraged for essentially being double-charged for something they don’t want,” Beavers said. “I’ve opted out because I’m concerned about health issues and privacy, plus it really makes me angry to have to have a new piece of equipment I don’t care to have.”

Beavers is asking the 10-member Legislative Council to accept emergency legislation to prevent CMP from billing customers fees for opting out. It’s the second time she’s made the request. The last time, she said, only two of the 10 members agreed with her. Her appeal Thursday needs a majority vote to move forward. If she gets it, the bill would be assigned to the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee, on which she serves, and would then go to the House in early 2012, she said.

“Honestly, it’s an uphill battle,” Beavers said. “I think it’s worth fighting for the people. This is not going to hurt CMP.”

Beavers said she lives in a multi-family home where all of the electric meters for the house are outside her bedroom. While she had opted out, CMP crews installed two Smart Meters for the other residents in the house and were about to install a third when she asked them to stop. They complied, she said.

Low-income residents are the ones being affected the most, she said. “I’m hoping to use that as argument, as far as it being an emergency,” she said. “It’s really mostly impacting the elderly and lower-income people who can’t afford to opt out.”

Smart Meter opponents voice health and privacy issues as their top concerns. The wireless meters operate on the same 2.4 gigahertz radio frequency as cordless phones and baby monitors.

Opponent Elisa Boxer-Cook of Scarborough claims Smart Meters are more biologically damaging than other wireless devices because they produce high-frequency radio spikes known as “dirty electricity,” that pulsate through home wiring. There is no off switch, she said. Homeowners who have had Smart Meters installed have complained of headaches, insomnia, heart palpitations and nausea, she said.

Those opposed also cite the World Health Organization’s recent designation of cell phones and wireless equipment as a carcinogenic risk.

“There is enough concern out there, a person should have a right to reject something without paying for it,” Beavers said.

Her legislation, she said, would provide direction for the Public Utilities Commission, which has given the Smart Meter program the go-ahead provided CMP offers customers the ability to opt out. In going forward with the program, funded in large part by federal stimulus money, CMP had not originally considered Smart Meters voluntary, Carroll said.

Earlier this year, the PUC dismissed numerous complaints against Smart Meters with commissioners saying they would make no determination on the health allegations. One 19-person complaint dismissed this summer has become the basis for an appeal to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

On Oct. 31, lead plaintiff Ed Friedman of Bowdoinham and the 18 others appealed the PUC’s decision denying their request for reconsideration of Smart Meters on the basis of health, privacy and the rates for those who opt out.

“The PUC says it’s not going to rule on the issues of privacy, safety,” Friedman said. “Their governing statute specifically says you have to ensure safe service. Our basic premise is, if you ensure safe service, and say you’re not going to decide, you’re not fulfilling your obligation.”

Asked what he hopes to achieve in the appeal, Friedman said, “I’d like the high court to throw the whole program out.” Until then, Friedman advocates customers opt out and not pay CMP the additional fees.

“Many of us think this is extortion,” he said. “You can choose to have a cell phone, wireless router, microwave, but you can also choose not to. This is not a choice, this is a mandate. There’s thousands of people in Maine who can’t afford to pay that. It’s a sizeable portion of the bill. This discriminates against those who can’t afford it.”

No one from the PUC could be reached for comment.

“The PUC really did look at the issue and tried to find a system to ensure people would have a choice, something that would not cost the other ratepayer base,” Carroll said. “The commission is consistent. Back in May and in January they defined the scope of the evaluation. The decisions in May (to offer an opt-out) are consistent throughout as far as the scope of the evaluation, whether to have an opt-out and maintaining the opt-out policy put in place. It’s been helpful to us. It allowed us to move forward.”


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