The Maine Public Utility Commission shocked the industry when it was one of the first states to open an opt-out investigation and subsequently order a smart meter opt-out. Despite taking these steps that many in the utility industry disagree with, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court recently told the MPUC it failed to adequately address the health and safety concerns raised regarding smart meters. This stems from an appeal taken by a customer of Central Maine Power over a dismissed complaint regarding the Commission’s opt-out order.

The complaint by 19 CMP customers requested a new investigation due to “new and important evidence specifically addressing non-ionizing radiation of the type emitted by smart meters.” The complaint states there was a May 31, 2011 press release from the World Health Organization that classified RF radiation as possibly carcinogenic to humans. The Appellate Court held the Commission erred in dismissing the complaint because it did not adequately address the health and safety concerns. The MPUC concluded the appropriate entity to consider potential RF health impacts is the FCC in consultation with the Food and Drug Administration. In spite of conducting an investigation, the Commission made no determination on the merits of health, safety, privacy or security concerns regarding wireless smart meters. Without considering the health and safety issues, the Court concluded the Commission could not find the opt-out fee was not reasonable.

Despite the yo-yo effect, this decision will be beneficial to utilities in the long run. It will finally force the industry to engage in independent research to address the health concerns. Then maybe we can all live smart.

I recently had the opportunity to interview the Chairman of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, Robert F. Powelson, regarding his views on smart meter opt-outs and other issues affecting Pennsylvania’s energy future. Because I live and practice in Pennsylvania, I may be biased but I think Smart Grid Legal News readers will agree it is refreshing and rare to hear regulators like Chairman Powelson promote smart meters, energy efficiency and other practices that advance our energy future.

Evers: Chairman Powelson, thank you for taking the time to discuss smart meters with me. Why is it important for customers to have smart meters?

Powelson: Act 129 of 2008 has really paved the way for the rollout of smart meters, also referred to as Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI), and the implementation of Act 129 continues to benefit Pennsylvania customers. As I see it, smart meter technology is a “win-win” situation for the Commonwealth – both electricity customers and electricity providers alike reap the benefits of advanced meters. 

Smart meters give customers greater control over their energy consumption by allowing them to measure their energy usage, monitor real-time electricity prices, and adjust their consumption and behavior in order to realize significant savings on monthly bills. Customers can even shut down appliances during peak periods or pre-program appliances and devices to operate only at predetermined (and lower cost) timeframes if they so choose.

Similarly, electricity providers also benefit from increased smart meter deployment. The two key concepts here are efficiency and reliability. AMI makes meter reading quicker and more efficient by eliminating the current practice of estimated meter readings. Additionally, with smart meters, utilities have the ability to monitor distribution networks to allow for the immediate detection of irregularities, which leads to drastically reduced response time in addressing outages. 

Finally, smart meters can help reduce both overall electricity use and peak demand use, leading to lower emissions from fossil power plants that will not have to generate as much power – a direct environmental benefit.

Evers: Chairman, across the country several states have implemented an opt-out process due to customers concerns about health and privacy. I am concerned about the impact of an opt-out process as people relocate in and out of homes with smart meters. I call it a smart meter mosaic. I joke that real estate disclosure forms will soon have to start indicating the home’s level of smartness. Seriously, I think the implementation and long-term management of such a process could eventually put upward pressure on rates for everyone. What are your views regarding a smart meter opt-out process?

Powelson: In May, I testified before the Pennsylvania House of Representatives Consumer Affairs Committee on a proposal to partially repeal Act 129 and permit smart meter “opt-out” programs in the Commonwealth. My testimony addressed two pieces of legislation – House Bill 2186, which would allow consumers to opt out of having smart meters installed at their premises, and House Bill 2188, which would require consumer consent in order to share information from electric meters with government agencies. These bills represent a significant step backward in policy, with the potential to negate all of the reductions already achieved under Act 129.

The proliferation of opt-out requirements for AMI deployment has the potential to cripple efforts to modernize grid technology. Maine has received a lot of attention regarding its AMI opt-out, and Central Maine Power (CMP) has considered, analyzed and provided substantial cost information relating to a variety of potential solutions or mitigation measures for customers seeking to opt out of CMP’s Smart Meter Program. CMP estimates these incremental infrastructure and support costs to be as high as $70 million over the life of the AMI project – and that is assuming only 1 to 2 percent of CMP customers opt out. At an opt-out level of 10 percent, these incremental costs grow to hundreds of millions of dollars – exceeding the costs of CMP’s advanced meter project.

While I appreciate that there are consumers who have security and privacy concerns with respect to AMI, the PUC, legislature, and Electric Distribution Companies (EDCs) may be able to help alleviate these concerns through increased education and outreach. It is worth noting that many EDCs and their customers have had AMI in place for years, namely PPL and PECO. Additionally, we are already facilitating the continued implementation of smart grid technology by establishing rules that more precisely address conduct in the areas of reliability, privacy and security. California and Ontario have undertaken similar efforts through a “Privacy by Design” rulebook, which was integral to customer support for advanced meter roll out.

In sum, opt-outs cause operational gaps that will lead to additional costs for companies and their customers, defeating the stated purposes of Act 129. Such a system reduces reliability for all customers, as well as the benefits of a completely modernized electric grid. Simply put, there is no compelling reason for an “opt-out” program.

Evers: Smart meters have received a lot of attention but there is so much more to the concept of smart grid. Beyond smart meters, what do you see as other benefits as utilities upgrade their systems?

Powelson: Nationally, billions of dollars are being invested in smart grid technology because of the many benefits to consumers and utilities, as well as the positive impact on the environment through increased energy efficiency. (By way of background, federal support for the development of smart meter systems began with the Energy Policy Act of 2005, was supplemented with passage of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, and funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 – which set aside $11 billion for the creation of a smart grid.)

For me it is not just about the technology. The most important objective is to better serve the needs of consumers and build stronger, more vibrant communities in which to live, work, and play. Smart meter and smart grid programs will be much more efficient in delivering electricity to homes and businesses; responding to outages and other emergencies; monitoring and seeking to curtail usage, especially during peak periods; preventing theft and fraud; and helping electric customers save dollars on their monthly bill. In short, the benefits to Pennsylvanians will continue to grow.

Evers: Recently many utilities have partnered with Opower and Facebook to allow customers to form teams for energy saving contests and compare energy usage with friends, hopefully creating positive peer pressure. Why are innovations like this important to our energy future?

Powelson: Any method of educating consumers and raising consumer awareness is vital. The real benefits will come when people start to realize that we are all in this together, and everyone contributing a little adds up to significant decreases in demand, which then puts a downward pressure on prices.

I particularly like this idea of comparing energy usage with neighbors and friends, as it dovetails nicely with the idea of “competition” in Pennsylvania’s electricity market. The more customers learn about competitive electricity providers, and the benefits and potential price savings available in the marketplace, the better. Increased dialogue that leads to decreased energy usage is exactly what we are looking for under Act 129.

Evers: Are there any other thoughts regarding Pennsylvania’s energy future you would like to share?

Powelson: Pennsylvania has really embraced a two-pronged approach in considering its energy future. On one hand, we are doing all that we can as regulators, providers, and consumers to comply with Act 129 and become more energy efficient. On the other hand, we are strengthening Pennsylvania’s competitive marketplace to increase competition among electric generation suppliers and produce better pricing and greater savings for the Commonwealth’s 5.6 million electric customers.

In addition to fulfilling its regulatory and oversight responsibilities, the Pennsylvania PUC will continue to educate consumers on the benefits of both energy efficiency and conservation, including smart meter technology, as well the advantages of shopping with competitive suppliers for their electric generation.

Millions of Smart Meters are being deployed annually creating the potential for mountains of analog meters to fill up landfills. Utility Services of the Americas has a solution – meter recycling. While attending and presenting at SmartEnergy International 2011 in San Francisco this week, I had the opportunity to speak with Brian Shine and Steven Snyder about their company’s timely and useful service. Utility Services of the Americas’ innovative process yields a zero-landfill method to discard old meters. Regardless of your location, they will arrange for the packaging, transport and recycling of your electric, gas, water and parking meters, adding to the environmental benefits of the smart grid.

Speaking of benefits, meter recycling can also help utilities with their smart meter business cases. Brian tells me their clients receive money back based on the total poundage of the recycled meters. So in addition to cutting the landfills some slack, meter recycling can assist with driving down the costs of smart meter projects. Sure, a few analog meters will have to be saved for Central Maine Power’s service territory, where customers will still have the analog option, but most analog meters will face early retirement and meter recycling is a great way to save both money and the environment.

On May 19, 2011, after taking into consideration all public correspondence and filings, the Maine Public Utilities Commission issued a Part 1 Order requiring Central Maine Power to implement an opt out program. What is interesting about the order is that it seems to go beyond addressing the RF issues and requires more than what is necessary to comfort those customers with smart meter health concerns. As stated in its press release, CMP will provide residential and small commercial customers with four choices:

  1. the default smart meter which will become the standard meter in CMP territory;
  2. the ability to select a smart meter with the transmitter-off;
  3. the ability to keep the customer’s existing analog meter; or,
  4. the ability to move the new smart meters elsewhere on their property at the customer’s expense.

This decision seems to be a long way from the Commission’s order in February 2010 where the Commission approved this very same CMP AMI program  that is now the subject of an opt out order that not only provides for the transmitter to be off, but even requires CMP to keep in use analog meters. In February 2010, the Commission stated that CMP’s AMI program would, “improve customer service, enhance storm restoration efforts, reduce utility operational costs, save ratepayer and utility costs, and ultimately provide customers with necessary tools to use electricity more efficiently.”  It will be interesting to see the extent of the anticipated reduction in utility operational costs as CMP maintains the systems and networks to support both analog and smart meters.

In Maine the Commission can issue an order in two parts. The first providing the decision and the latter providing the background, analyses and reasoning underlying the Commission’s decision. I’m looking forward to reading the Part II Order to see if it addresses my questions after reading the Part I Order:

  • What happens when people move? It is possible that customers will relocate within and outside of CMP’s service territory. At some point, radio off customers will move into transmitter on homes or analog metered homes and vice versa.  Who pays for the administrative and operational cost of what will eventually become  an opt-in and opt-out mosaic with two subparts?
  • Can CMP’s customers relocating within Maine but outside of CMP’s service territory expect to have the same opt-out option at their new home?
  • Why have an opt-out option when the FCC and FDA have approved the smart meters for use?
  • Analog? Really? When the analog meters are ready for replacement will CMP be required to purchase analog meters for the chosen few 10 or 15 years down the road? Admittedly, functional yet used meters should be on sale as other utilities abandon analog just like the FCC did with our television transmission.

The costs to customers for the various options will be:

  1. For the electro-mechanical meter option: an initial, one-time charge of $40.00 and a recurring monthly charge of $12.00
  2. For the standard wireless “smart meter” with the NIC operating in receive-only mode: an initial, one-time charge of $20.00 and a recurring monthly charge of $10.50
  3. For any customer that does not enroll in the opt-out program within the 30 period specified above and later chooses to do so: a $25.00 surcharge. CMP may waive the surcharge if it determines there is a sufficient reason for the customer’s failure to notify CMP within the 30-day period

I suggest realtors in Maine begin to prepare new disclosure forms to alert potential buyers to the home’s level of smartness.

Despite having approved Central Maine Power’s (CMP’s) Automated Metering Infrastructure (AMI) plan in February 2010 as a program designed to “improve customer service, enhance storm restoration efforts, reduce utility operational costs, save ratepayer and utility costs, and ultimately provide customers with necessary tools to use electricity more efficiently,” on January 4, 2011, the Maine PUC voted unanimously to open an investigation at the request of complainants citing health concerns. (Docket Numbers 2010-345, and 2010-389). The Commission states the investigation will examine:

  • the possibility of local opt-outs to the program already being implemented and installed by CMP;
  • the possible effect of such an opt-out on the original federal Department of Energy (DOE) grant which helped fund approximately half the cost of the program;
  • the availability of hard-wire alternatives from CMP;
  • cost implications of any alternatives; and
  • what impact the alternatives would have on the smart grid program’s goals. 

Attorney Beth George of Scarborough, MI, is just one of several CMP customers requesting an investigation. Her letter to the Commission expressed concern about a few of her neighbors having “some type of heart failure” within weeks of each other. Additionally, the Scarborough Town Council passed a resolution requesting CMP to delay the installation of the “so called smart meters.” The Council is asking the Commission to give customers the ability to opt out of having the wireless smart meters installed. Several state representatives weighed in requesting an investigation as well.

I wonder if any of the complainants have cell phones, use Wi-Fi for their home internet connections or use cordless phones? Will CMP lower its carbon footprint by sending a meter reader to read three meters on Cleveland Circle and two meters on Hampton Circle? Obviously efficiencies will be lost. And what about the software and other technology issues? Will CMP have to maintain dual billing systems? There is a strong possibility these options will take an expensive plan and make it cost prohibitive.