AUGUSTA — The $12 fee that Central Maine Power charges customers who decide they don't want their power metered with a wireless device was the subject of more than six hours of testimony Tuesday.
Lawmakers on the Legislature's Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee heard from those who said the technology poses a health and safety risk and those who said it's essential to creating a smart grid that will save energy and money over time.
A bill, LD 826, sponsored by Rep. Roberta Beavers, D-South Berwick, would prohibit a utility from charging customers who decide they don't want wireless smart meters installed.
So far, about 8,500 CMP customers have chosen to "opt out" of the smart meter program, said David Allen, a CMP lobbyist who spoke against Beavers' bill Tuesday.
The Maine Public Utilities Commission has allowed CMP to charge those customers a $40, one-time fee followed by a $12-a-month service charge.
Opponents to the technology, many of whom say the devices present a danger to health because of the electromagnetic fields emitted by radio transmitters, turned out in force to testify in favor of the measure.
Elisa Boxer, a Scarborough resident, said she asked the PUC and CMP to grant her a medical waiver for the fee because her doctor told her to eliminate all sources of microwave radiation to help her migraine headaches.
When the utility refused, Boxer became an activist against the devices which she said Tuesday are listed as a possible source of cancer by the World Health Organization.
"I'm not here to tell anyone not to use their cellphones or Wi-Fi," Boxer said, "nor am I here to debate the science."
Boxer said she was grateful she was allowed to keep her old analog meter but resents paying do do so.
"Paying that $12 a month to decrease my proximity to radiation classified by the World Health Organization as a possible human carcinogen feels just plain wrong," she said. "DDT (a pesticide) is in the same category. I'd feel the same way about paying to opt out of spraying DDT on my house. And, similarly, even if I did pay, I'd still be exposed."
Beavers said she was bringing the bill because the PUC never conducted public hearings on the fees, there was not proof that ratepayers were saving because of smart meters and "some citizens have actually reported increases in their bills since having smart meters forced on them."
She said other consequences from smart meters have been brought to her attention by citizens, including those with pacemakers, implanted cardiac defibrillators and other electronic devices and people with sensitivities to electronics of any kind.
CMP installed smart meters with the aid of a $96 million federal stimulus grant starting in 2010. The grant paid for about half the cost of the program.
But the devices, meant to help create a more efficient energy grid, have not been without controversy.
Allen, the CMP lobbyist, on Tuesday told the committee the fee helped cover the costs CMP incurs to its system because the smart meters work together in a network. When one is removed, it creates a hole in that network and CMP often has to install a "repeater" device to make up for the missing smart meter.
Allen disputed statements from opponents who said the devices caused health problems and said the science on electromagnetic radiation at low levels was inconclusive. He said smart meters lower operational costs to the utility and thus, to the ratepayer.
"Before we had smart meters, we sent meter readers out to do 100,000 off-cycle reads a year," Allen said. Those off-cycle reads were beyond the regular monthly reads done by meter readers.
He said the meters also benefit the grid because outages can be pinpointed remotely, with more accuracy, and repaired more quickly.
"All in all, opt-out customers reduce the effectiveness and efficiency of the system and increase the cost of the system," Allen said.
He pointed to a law passed by the Legislature in 2009 that essentially mandated the use of the devices in the creation of a "smart grid."
But even lawmakers who supported that bill said they were skeptical that the measure required CMP customers to use a device they didn't want.
"There was no requirement that everyone opt in," said Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, a co-sponsor of the smart-grid law. "I need to be convinced, frankly, that those folks, for whatever their rationale is and their reasoning, should have to pay extra money."
Allen said Vermont recently overturned an opt-out fee for electricity users and the number of people asking to have the meters removed went up.
About 1 percent of CMP customers have decided to pay the fee to not have smart meters on their homes. That number is closer to 4 percent in Vermont, Allen said.
Other supporters of the bill said the smart meters allowed CMP to collect "intimate data" on electricity use that could later be sold to other entities.
Kathleen McGee of Winthrop said the fee was "extortive"
"Smart meters are essentially a government-mandated surveillance device," McGee said. "The only way to keep my detailed, personal and I would say intimate daily activities from corporate profit and government intrusion is to pay the opt-out."
Allen disputed that, saying the data wasn't detailed and the data that was shared across the system was encrypted. CMP only collected data on the total power consumed each day, he said.
But Rep. Lance Harvell, R-Farmington said he didn't believe CMP would see large numbers of people ask to have their smart meters removed if the fee were eliminated.
Harvell said some would see the fee as a bargain and the fee was unlikely a barrier or incentive for those who were really worried about health or privacy issues.
"A person, for $12 a month is going to jeopardize their health and they are going to jeopardize their privacy?" Harvell asked Allen. "Most people who have migraine headaches would throw $12 on the table to get rid of them tomorrow. And a lot of people, if for $12 they could get the government off their back. We would all be reaching into our pockets."