SCARBOROUGH — A group of citizens is challenging Central Maine Power Co.'s installation of "smart" electric meters on homes.
They claim there are too many privacy and health concerns about the wireless meters.
The challenge comes after CMP received $96 million in federal stimulus money to purchase and install the smart-meter technology. The meter reduce the company's labor costs, and allow residents to monitor their energy consumption in real time and make informed decisions about when and how they use electricity.
This spring, the state Legislature unanimously approved LD 1535, An Act to Create a Smart Grid Policy in the State, which approved installation of the meters.
But critics are concerned that the meters, which utilize a non-ionizing radio wave frequency – similar to cellular phones and wireless Internet routers – may have unintended health side-effects.
"They say it's only a few seconds burst of a powerful signal occasionally throughout the day," said Elisa Boxer-Cook, a Scarborough resident who is writing a formal complaint to the Maine Public Utilities Commission that is expected to be filed Wednesday, Oct. 20. "But our bodies are getting assaulted with this. There have been zero studies of the health effects of these meters."
Boxer-Cook said she'd like CMP to stop installing the meters until health and safety concerns can be studied and addressed.
Installation in progress
The meters have already been installed on more than 11,000 homes, including many in Portland, South Portland, Freeport and Westbrook. CMP has purchased 620,000 of the meters, which will replace all the meters currently in use in the company's service area.
Smart meters work in a "mesh" network, which means they communicate wirelessly, sending and relaying information from one meter to another within a neighborhood until the information reaches a collector antenna installed on a pole somewhere in the neighborhood. The antenna then sends the signal, using signal repeaters, to a central database at CMP headquarters in Augusta.
The meters transmit a brief signal, several times per hour, for no more than six minutes per hour, CMP spokesman John Carroll said.
"Not only can (the smart meters) talk to us, we can talk to them," Carroll said.
The infrastructure will allow CMP to update software for the meters remotely, monitor power outages and turn power on and off to homes, all from Augusta.
Carroll said the meters have been approved by the Federal Communications Commission. He explained that, in terms of radiation exposure, standing one foot from the meter is 1/7,000th of the FCC limit for this type of non-ionizing radiation.
"It falls off very quickly with distance," he said.
Carroll said CMP is trying to be as responsive as possible to concerned customers, including temporarily allowing those who are concerned to opt out of the meters. However, he said, the company is moving forward as quickly as possible with the installations.
"There was not a single person who testified against this in the Legislature. No one came to say there were health and safety concerns or privacy issues," said Rep. Sean Flaherty, D-Scarborough, who also sits on the Utilities and Energy Committee.
But in retrospect, Flaherty said, CMP should have done a pilot program before installing the grids on all its customers' homes. He and Rep. Peggy Pendleton, D-Scarborough, have both signed Boxer-Cook's PUC complaint.
Carroll said it would not have made sense for CMP to install the meters and all the accompanying technology, including antennas and repeaters, software and data management, for just a small group of customers.
"This was something we needed to do on a system-wide basis," he said.
Derek Davidson, director of the PUC Consumer Assistance Division, said the PUC was not aware of the health concerns when it approved the installation in February.
"These issues were not formally raised, so they were not formally explored," Davidson said.
After the complaint is filed, the PUC will evaluate whether it will reconsider its initial approval, which focused heavily on the financial aspects of the smart meter installation and did not review the safety or security concerns.
A city in California shares Boxer-Cook's anxiety.
In August, the City Council of Watsonville, Calif., imposed a one-year moratorium on the installation of smart meters, citing concerns about the accuracy of the technology and stating that "there is a current and immediate threat to the public health, safety and welfare" from the meters.
In May, the California Public Utilities Commission announced an independent study of smart meters after receiving over-billing complaints from customers of utility company Pacific Gas & Electric.
The CPUC's study found that the complaints were primarily associated with a heat wave that coincided with installation, as well as with some customer-service issues the power company had failed to address. The study did not address health concerns, nor did a similar study ordered by the Texas PUC.
A 2009 report by the President's Cancer Panel, however, did briefly address concerns that there was some evidence suggesting non-ionizing radiation may "have deleterious effects on human health with prolonged exposure." But it did not further define what those effects may be.
"Show me peer-reviewed studies that there are no health effects," Boxer-Cook said. "I want them to not install one more antenna, one more meter, until the studies show people and their private information are safe."
An Oct. 5 article published in Scientific American magazine expressed concern that hackers could gain access to personal customer data, including credit card numbers, by accessing the wireless network of meters.
The article also suggested it would be possible to bring down an entire grid by creating a bot-network of meters to simultaneously attack the power company's mainframe.
According to the article, "a network of drone smart meters could cause a swath of the grid to power down, throwing off the grid’s electrical load. The imbalance would send large flows of electricity back to generators, severely damaging them or even blowing them up."
Carroll said CMP already has cyber security systems in place and that the smart meters will just extend that same security across a larger platform.
"Our systems for cyber security have to be very robust," he said. "We've been dealing with security systems for years."
Carroll said the U.S. Department of Energy approved the encryption system in place for the smart meters that will prevent the system from becoming a portal into CMP's other systems.
Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or firstname.lastname@example.org