Central Maine Power is scheduled to begin installing smart meters, the new remotely monitored electric meters that have raised health and privacy concerns, in the midcoast within the next few weeks. Just over 150,000 smart meters have already been installed in York County, the greater Portland area, and the greater Augusta area, according to John Carroll, the spokesman for CMP.

"A few have been installed in Waldo County, but only a handful," said Carroll. The process to install them in Waldo County will begin in earnest in April, with the Rockland and Camden areas scheduled for the beginning of June.

Municipalities can request a briefing by CMP before the installation begins and have the option of holding a public forum, said Carroll. In Waldo County, briefings have already been held in Lincolnville, Thorndike and Searsmont.

"CMP offers the briefing," said Carroll. "It is up to the town to decide if they want one."

Carroll said the towns of Rockland, Belfast and Camden have not yet requested a briefing, though all have been contacted to see if they want to schedule one. Cushing is scheduled for a briefing at a 6 p.m. select board meeting on Monday, March 28, at the community center on Cross Road. CMP officials will brief the Rockport select board at 7 p.m. Monday, May 9, at the Rockport Opera House.

Concerns about smart electric meters, which are replacing standard electric meters, have prompted investigation by the Maine Public Utilities Commission (PUC). The Maine PUC initiated the investigation as a result of consumer complaints registered with the Maine Office of the Public Advocate.

More than 40 CMP consumers contacted the public advocate's office last fall with concerns about the radio waves emanating from the smart meters and requested smart meter installation be delayed until more information on health effects was available. The Maine Center for Disease Control subsequently concluded the threat was no greater than that of regular cell phone use or having a wireless router in the home.

Cyber-hacking and privacy concerns are also on the list of complaints.

The smart meters, known more formally as the Advanced Metering Infrastructure or AMI, allows CMP to read meters remotely, cancel accounts, track usage and outages by specific location, share specific information with customers that will allow them to reduce energy use, and eliminate the human workforce of meter-readers. The expected savings will be passed on to the customers, according to Counsel Eric Bryant at the public advocate's office.

The Maine Office of the Public Advocate represents the interest of ratepayers and can request that the Maine PUC initiate a proceeding on behalf of consumers. Complainants are requesting an opportunity to opt out of having smart meters installed. A settlement on the question is scheduled for Thursday, March 24, at the Maine PUC.

"While this is going on, CMP is willing to honor a customer's request to not install a smart meter," said Carroll. However, AMI is a change of infrastructure, so while customers may be able to opt out of having a smart meter installed in the same location as their current electric box, they won't be able to keep their current electric meter.

"Right now, you can have it installed away from the house, mounted on a post, but you have to pay for it," said Carroll.

Bryant said he is cautiously optimistic that CMP will agree to allow opt-outs, but the devil will be in the details of who will bear the cost of the additional infrastructure: the customer or CMP.

"At the Maine PUC, the question is: who pays for the extra expense of the opt-out? Is it the specific customer or is it spread across all ratepayers?" said Bryant.

One potential alternative to having a smart meter installed is to have a meter with a hardwired telephone connection. The cost to do so, according to CMP analysis submitted to the Maine PUC, would be a one-time fee of $537 and a monthly cost of $29. Another option, relocation of the smart meter to a remote location, would have an estimated one-time fee of $353, with no additional monthly fee. Other options, at varying cost, have also been discussed. If a settlement isn't reached between the complainants and CMP, then the debate will move into litigation, according to Bryant.

The state legislature has also taken up bills on smart meter installation, including LD 620, which proposes a one-year moratorium on the installation of smart meters to allow for more investigation into health impacts of the new technology. The bill includes a provision to have a smart meter removed for no more than $30 at the request of the customer. LD 756, another proposed bill, would allow customers to opt out of smart meter installation (or have one removed free) and allow for an alternative at no additional cost to the customer.

No action is scheduled on either bill as of press time.