Published Date Written by David Carkhuff
Critics say “smart meters” threaten public health and privacy with their bursts of radiofrequency signals.
Advocates for these automated devices say smart meters help save utility customers money and are good for the environment.
In a two-day hearing that will stretch into Halloween, state regulators in Maine will grapple with these issues, and tackle a thorny dispute that an attorney on the case described as potentially ground breaking.
“I’d say it is safe to say that this is the most in-depth investigation into the safety and health of smart meters around the country,” said Bruce McGlauflin, attorney with Petruccelli, Martin & Haddow, Attorneys at Law, of Portland, who represents complainants. “The issue has been considered in other states, but not to the extent that the process has unfolded in this case.”
The Maine Public Utilities Commission is scheduled to conduct hearings Oct. 30 and 31.
“It has national implication and hopefully the commission will rule in our favor and determine that smart meters do have significant health and safety risks that will justify either eliminating them or at least allowing people the right to opt out without cost,” McGlauflin said.
A final body of evidence hearing starting at 9 a.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 30 is expected to include oral testimony via teleconference. Opponents of smart meters arranged for testimony from Dr. Girish Kumar from India, a professor in electrical engineering who specializes in cell tower radiation hazards and other technology; and Dr. Lennart Hardell from Sweden, an oncologist and epidemiologist who is considered an expert on cell phone-induced brain tumors and radiofrequency technology.
“These two witnesses were selected for oral testimony,” McGlauflin explained.
A lead critic of the “smart meter” in Maine calls his two years and running case before regulators “a simple matter of extortion, not succumbing to extortion.”
Ed Friedman, with the Richmond-based Maine Coalition to Stop Smart Meters (http://www.mainecoalitiontostopsmartmeters.org), said, “This is sort of the DDT of this century. This is one of the most toxic issues of our time.”
Maine’s embrace of “smart meters” has not been universal, and Friedman used the word “extortion” to describe the state’s stipulation that customers who opt out of using smart meters must pay a fee.
A Central Maine Power spokesman says this ongoing case before the PUC has the potential to raise “a much larger social question about how ubiquitous this radio frequency technology is.”
John Carroll, spokeman for CMP, said the U.S. Department of Energy and other agencies have recognized CMP for its smart meter system.
“We’re a regulated utility, and the PUC ordered us to install these meters for all residents. Initially there was no opt-out that we could offer as a program,” Carroll said.
Central Maine Power went back to the PUC for a proceeding on the opt-out proposal. Carroll said the use of outdated meters comes with a cost.
“It was the commission’s conclusion and we agreed that this is an optional service (the opt out) that adds cost to our operation, and we couldn’t see the rationale for charging all of our other customers for providing what was in effect an obsolete technology,” he said.
Carroll said about 8,000 people have opted out and 610,000 people haven’t opted out since CMP received approval in 2010 for the smart meters.
“This is a system that we began in 2010, it is now complete, it’s operating, customers are benefiting with better service and more information,” he said.
Older residents might remember meter readers, technicians who manually went to homes and logged information from meters. But those devices aren’t made anymore, Carroll said.
“Nobody manufactures them any more,” he said.
“Right now we couldn’t buy them.”
With smart meters, the utility doesn’t have to collect the information
“The fundamental technology is we get information from the meters once a day,” Carroll said.
How they work
Smart meters record information in one-hour increments, something the old meter did not do, Carroll said. The information is limited, however, Carroll said, so what the electricity is being used for isn’t included in the readings.
“It simply tells how much electricity is being used in the house,” he said.
Still, the technology “presents for customers a much more detailed view of their energy use,” Carroll said, and “it also enables a more dynamic energy market because energy suppliers can begin to offer more sophisticated time-of-use rate plans.”
The meters can be turned off remotely, Carroll said. For example, in California, customers can sign up for a demand response program, and “even in New England high demand users can sign up for program that they are compensated if they back down their load during high demand periods,” Carroll said. “That’s on a voluntary basis.”
Less power use during peak periods can result in less power production, indirectly helping the environment.
“It’s actually something that’s very good for the environment,” Carroll said.
Since the mid-2000s, utilities have investigated smart meters, and CMP started looking at installing them in 2007, with PUC oversight, Carroll said.
In 2010, the federal government invested in the program through stimulus funding, 50 percent funding, Carroll noted.
“The Maine Legislature passed a smart grid law in 2010 saying Maine should be putting this technology in place. ... And then in 2010, federal government gave us $96 million to do it,” he said.
Carroll described “broad public policy support” among state regulators and state legislators.
According to CMP, “a smart meter communicates information about electricity use with other meters and with CMP by sending very brief radiofrequency (RF) signals. The Smart Meter transmits for less than a minute each day.”
“These meters send a daily signal that give 24-hour increments of power use,” Carroll said. “It gives us and the customer a view of how the energy was flowing, what the use was in those hourly increments.”
But he acknowledged two issues that arise — health concerns and privacy objections.
Unease with the “level of detail” in the newly compiled data can be countered, CMP argues. “CMP already protects private data about its customers’ accounts. The use of data encryption will keep this data safe during transmission,” the utility reports at its web site, https://www.cmpco.com/smartmeter/default.html#PersonalData.
Health concerns center on radiofrequency signals issued by the smart meters.
“It’s important to understand that is an extremely common, I would say ubiquitous technology in our society today,” Carroll said.
Examples of similar technology include cordless phones and wireless systems, he said.
‘The issue is much bigger than smart meters’
“In some respects, this case is not so much about the meters themselves, it’s about our use of this common radio frequency technology,” Carroll said.
With 40 million of these meters in use in the United States and about 610,000 installed in the CMP service area, a finding of health impacts could be far reaching, Carroll acknowledged.
But he added, “The issue is much bigger than smart meters, if radio frequency technology is really a health risk, Central Maine Power would have to go remove these meters ... but that would not address the much larger social question about how ubiquitous this radio frequency technology is.”
McGlauflin, attorney for the complainants, noted that the Maine Supreme Judicial Court ordered an investigation into the safety of the meters when it remanded the case back to the commission.
“What has been going on since then is a very long and drawn out investigation,” he noted.
“Both the PUC and CMP have the burden to show that they can ensure the safety of the smart meters,” McGlauflin said.
Friends of Merrymeeting Bay, chaired by Friedman, has now embraced the smart meter issue. Friedman said he delved into the issue individually and wrote the original complaint with the PUC. That was back in 2011; about 19 people joined that complaint.
Friedman never acquired a smart meter — “I never got one, no way,” he said. “”No way am I going to be forced to pay to avoid the threat of harm.”
Small victories have been won along the way by smart meter opponents, Friedman said. The PUC placed a stay on CMP disconnects for those withholding payments while opting out, Friedman said.
“It’s not just about getting sick, it’s about security of the home and security of our own personal lives,” he said.
The PUC could grant a no-cost opt-out, but that would not protect health in urban areas, Friedman said.
Opponents argue that utilities lack the research to confirm safety and security of smart meters. (CMP, at its website, counters these concerns with lists of agencies and organizations that conducted “comprehensive reviews of RF research.” Also, Dr. Dora Anne Mills, former director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, is quoted saying, “The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention found no consistent or convincing evidence to support a concern for health effects related to the use of radio frequency in the range of frequencies and power used by smart meters.”)
Opponents insist the verdict isn’t in on health effects from smart meters.
“It’s sort of a great unknown, and we’re seeing more people having adverse health effects,” Friedman said.
“I’ve seen people’s lives literally destroyed by smart meters,” Friedman said.
A smart meter 25 feet away from a couple in Maine forced them out of their home of 33 years, he said.
“They actually moved down to Ecuador,” he said.
“Their life was destroyed. I”ve talked to many people like that. This is not a trivial thing,” he said.
Smart meters also raise constitutional issues about privacy and the Fourth Amendment, Friedman said. Court precedent holds that installation of detailed information-gathering device on private property without a warrant violates the Constitution, he said — which he said is pertinent with smart meters “when the security of your home can be compromised and your identity stolen because someone is hacking into the electronic signal that’s coming out of your house.”
Even non-wireless meters such as those used in the Bangor area can transmit “dirty power,” Friedman said.
“There are strong grassroots movements against them,” he said, calling Maine’s adjudication an “historic investigation” into their safety.
Harry Lanphear, adminstrative director at the PUC, said he foresees hearings for the last two days in October, and then briefs of the parties near the end of the year and an examiner’s report by the end of January.
“The health impacts are kind of the core issue right now,” Lanphear said.
“That’s not normally one of the things we’d look at in detail in utility cases,” Lanphear added. “Normally it’s financial and customer service and other regulatory issues we deal with vs. these kinds of issues for sure.”
“We haven’t had the hearings yet so it will be hard to say what the result of the hearings will be and what will be the take by the various people in the case,” Lanphear said.
“The next few months in the case will give us a better understanding of where the overall issue is heading,” he said.
Carroll said the question of health impacts will need to be resolved by the PUC.
“The question the commission has to determine is whether there is any scientific evidence that that is the case,” he said.
If the PUC finds a health-related reason to discontinue the use of smart meters, Carroll said the ramifications will be enormous.
In that instance, “the issues for society are much bigger than whether we should have smart meters or not,” he said.
(For updates on the Maine PUC review of smart meters, visit http://www.maine.gov/mpuc/index.shtml.)