The details of the smart meter deliberations at the Maine Public Utilities Commission (PUC) went public last week when the Maine Office of the Public Advocate announced they supported allowing Central Maine Power (CMP) customers to choose between three alternatives to the controversial electric meters, if the individual customers bear the cost. CMP said they oppose allowing customers a choice.

The commissioners at the Maine PUC will make the final decision, but there is no timetable yet for that decision.

Installation of the wireless smart meters began last fall at the 600,000 customers served by CMP. Meters are currently being installed in the greater Belfast area and are scheduled to be installed in the greater Rockland area and in the Waldoboro, Damariscotta and Wiscasset areas in the next month to six weeks.

CMP business customers will be notified by postcard that installation is imminent and asked to schedule a time. Residential customers will get a courtesy knock on the door, but if no one is home the smart meter will be installed without further notice. The process takes less than 15 minutes and may cause a brief interruption in power.

CMP is allowing customers to temporarily opt out of the smart meters for free while the Maine PUC deliberates. Customers must contact CMP in advance.

As to a permanent opt-out solution, CMP has dug in its heels and said there is no reasonable justification for allowing it, but customers should bear full and immediate responsibility for the cost if an opt-out is allowed. CMP also stated they would not support any provision that jeopardizes the $96 million federal funding targeted to pay for half of the new smart meter technology and infrastructure.

CMP also said that if an opt-out is required, they prefer one option only: a wireless smart meter with the transmitter turned off.

Wireless smart meters receive and transmit information about electricity use in small bursts of radio waves approximately every 15 minutes. Health concerns over the transmission have spurred some customers to formally complain.

The Maine Public Advocate's Office, which represents all ratepayers, took up the issue after receiving comments from "scores of customers and doctors regarding health effects associated with the smart meters, including nausea, migraines, insomnia, dizziness, memory loss and heart palpitations" according to their April 29 statement.

CMP pointed to an analysis that shows the smart meters are well within federal guidelines for radiation and emit far less than cell phones, microwaves and other household remote devices.

The Maine PUC investigated but did not find sufficient evidence to support an opt-out based on health; however, Maine PUC staff did move forward with looking into metering options, for any reason, and oversaw negotiations between CMP and smart meter complainants, including the Public Advocate.

When negotiations broke down in April, Maine PUC staff released its recommendations for alternative metering and the associated cost, basing it on a projected participation rate of 9,000 customers.

Maine PUC staff recommendations are as follows:

First, the current meter could stay in place for an opt-out charge of $40 and a monthly fee of $12. Second, a smart meter could be installed with the transmitter turned off for $20, so it could only receive information. The proposed monthly fee would be $10.50.

A third option is to have the smart meter installed away from the house at the owner's expense. There would be no monthly fee.

The Public Advocate's office supports the options, but notes that low-income householders should get substantial assistance in paying for opt-outs.

CMP said the cost of opting out could go up considerably if fewer people sign up. For example, CMP calculated that with 1,000 people participating, the monthly fee would be $60 a month for an optional meter.

The smart meters will allow for more efficient electricity monitoring and demand-driven rate setting, will signal when electricity fails and will allow CMP to do away with the cost of meter readers - a move they say will reduce CMP annual mileage by two million miles and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 1,500 tons a year. The smart meters are expected to produce rate savings for customers of between 10 and 15 percent, according to CMP.

CMP customers can continue to temporarily opt out of smart meter installation at no charge until the dispute is resolved by the Maine PUC. They can do so by contacting CMP at 1-800-750-4000 or by going to the Contact section of the CMP website at www.cmpco.com.