July 25, 2012

Maine Public Utility Commission's smart meters investigation may ripple through nation

By Tux Turkel tturkel@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

HALLOWELL -- In voting Tuesday to investigate the health and safety of wireless "smart meters," the Maine Public Utilities Commission set in motion a legal and technical case that's expected to be followed nationally by the power industry and citizen activists.

While it's too soon to say how comprehensive Maine's review will be, no state utility agency has held public hearings or conducted its own research into whether radio-frequency radiation from the digital devices is harmful to electricity customers, according to Dan Richman, who has spent three years covering the topic for the online trade publication Smart Grid Today.

"If Maine commissions original research or holds hearings, it would be the first time a PUC had done that," Richman said.

California's PUC did its own review of smart-meter research literature but hasn't held hearings, Richman said. Original research could take years and be very costly, he added.

The time frame and scope of the new proceeding is still being decided, but David Littell, one of the two commissioners who will decide the case, said he wanted to move quickly. The commission's order, released Tuesday afternoon, calls for key parties to meet Aug. 2, to consider a schedule and to review petitions to intervene.

The order comes nearly two weeks after the Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the PUC had failed to resolve health and safety issues when it approved Central Maine Power Co.'s installation of smart meters.

In a decision released July 12, the court sided with opponents of the new-technology digital meters, who argued that regulators ignored their legal mandate to ensure the delivery of "safe, reasonable and adequate service."

At the same time, the court didn't agree with the argument that the meters violate constitutional issues related to privacy and trespass. It's likely that opponents will file a motion this week asking the court to reconsider the privacy and security issues, according to Bruce McGlauflin, a lawyer representing smart-meter foes.

The PUC's action reopens public debate about an issue that has drawn national attention and led some electricity customers to pay extra each month not to have one of the wireless units installed at their homes.

The $200 million project, which received half of its funding from federal stimulus dollars, is now largely complete. The fact that nearly 615,000 new meters are installed raises the question of what utility regulators could do if they determined that the meters are a threat to health and safety.

In an interview following the deliberations, Littell declined to comment on the practical effect of any decision, or whether it even would be possible to replace the meters.

"We're going to look hard at this issue," he said of the health and safety complaints.

Smart meters transmit information about electricity using wireless technology that emits radio-frequency radiation, similar to a mobile phone.

Many utilities around the world are moving to smart meters, which can give customers more information about their energy use patterns and allow power companies to pinpoint problems during outages. The companies insist the equipment is safe and no different from other common wireless devices, such as cellphones.

Opponents say the radio-frequency radiation emitted by the wireless meters can cause health problems, including sleep loss and dizziness, and are an invasion of privacy because of the information they collect.

While radiation also is emitted from devices such as cellphones and wireless networks, smart meters have become a "flashpoint" McGlauflin said, because they now are a government mandate.

"People are being forced to have these things in their homes," McGlauflin said.

As the PUC case unfolds, smart-meter foes such as Ed Friedman, the lead plaintiff who brought the case to the Supreme Judicial Court, will try to expand the scope of the investigation. They will push for testimony from experts who have documented health problems that they link to smart meters.

(Continued on page 2)

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