The debate over whether customers will be allowed to opt out of the new wireless smart-meter technology that Central Maine Power (CMP) began installing on residences in its service area last fall looks like it could drag on for months, if not longer. CMP plans to replace every existing meter, of which there are about 600,000, with smart meters.

Consumer complaints about the installation of the so-called smart meters, which read and control electric use remotely, focus on potential health effects. Those complaints led to a Maine Public Utility Commission investigation that, in turn, led to negotiations between CMP, the Maine PUC staff and the Office of the Maine Public Advocate and other complainants. The Maine Public Advocate and the other complainants had a unified position that customers should be able to opt out.

The discussions did not center on the potential health effects, which were dismissed as minor last fall by Dr. Dora Mills, who was then head of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Instead, they focused on whether CMP would allow customers to opt out of the new smart-meter technology and, if so, who would bear the cost of the alternative equipment.

In a written statement, CMP said no opt- out solution would be considered if it jeopardizes the $96 million in federal funding for the smart-grid project.

Negotiations between the parties, which were confidential, fell apart last week and now CMP will face off with the Public Advocate and the other complainants in a more formal regulatory court at the Maine PUC. The decision on whether CMP customers can permanently opt out will be made by two of the three Maine PUC commissioners and could be months away, but CMP plans to still honor any request to temporarily opt out of smart-meter installation while the decision is pending, according to CMP spokesman John Carroll.

Maine Public Advocate senior counsel on the case, Eric Bryant, said he represents the public ratepayers at large, not just those who want to opt out of smart metering.

"So, while we have had a unified position with the other complainants, that could change," said Bryant. "I will be presenting the public advocate position independent of them."

As to the position of Maine PUC staff, that will not be confidential much longer. The Maine PUC staff will present their position on April 21 on whether opting out should be done and who should pay for it.

Meanwhile, the Maine Legislature has decided to step out of the fray for the time being: one bill to put a moratorium on smart meters was killed by the Energy and Utilities Committee and another was tabled.