Maine court sustains challenge to smart meter project, partially

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court has issued an opinion that calls into question the Maine Public Utilities Commission's dismissal of a complaint against a utility regarding its use of smart-meter technology.  With over 600,000 smart meters already installed, what the court ruling means is unclear.

In 2010, the Commission approved a proposal by Central Maine Power Company (CMP) to install smart meters on its customers' sites.  The project, which CMP called Advanced Metering Infrastructure, entailed replacing existing customer meters with "smart meters" capable of transmitting customer usage data back to the utility using radio frequency signals.

The project triggered a series of customer complaints raising concerns about the health and safety of smart-meter technology associated with the AMI project, focusing on the health effects of RF radiation emitted by the wireless smart meters and the technology’s potential to violate individuals’ privacy.  Customers also complained about the lack of an opt-out provision allowing customers to choose to retain their existing meters.

In 2011, the Commission ordered CMP to provide two alternatives for customers who choose not to have the standard wireless smart meter installed on their premises: either a standard meter, or a smart meter set to receive-only mode.  Under the Commission's order, customers opting out would pay an extra fee.

In response, nineteen CMP customers filed a complaint against both CMP and the Commission, challenging the opt-out fee.  The Commission dismissed that complaint, finding that it had considered and resolved the issues raised in the complaint by ordering CMP to allow customers to opt out.  This dismissal triggered an appeal by the customers to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

In the court's opinion issued last week, Friedman v. Public Utilities Commission, the court agreed with the customer complainants that the Commission should not have dismissed the portion of the complaint against CMP addressing health and safety issues.

In reaching this conclusion, the court noted that one of the Commission’s core regulatory responsibilities is to ensure that public utilities provide “safe, reasonable and adequate service” to customers.  The court found that the Commission had explicitly declined to decide "that smart meter technology is not a credible threat to the health and safety of CMP’s customers".  On that sole ground, the court vacated the portion of the Commission’s dismissal of the customer complaint that was directed at CMP and addressed health and safety concerns.

So what does the court's ruling mean in practical terms? CMP has already installed about 600,000 smart meters across its service territory, and has only about 2,000 smart meters left to install. The Commission is undoubtedly reviewing the court's order and has scheduled a deliberative session for next Tuesday, July 24, at 10:00 a.m.

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