A device intended to cut air pollution, decrease our reliance on fossil fuels, and increase energy efficiency is under attack from a small but passionate group of activists who say the technology is harmful and invasive.
Since 2010, Central Maine Power has installed 620,000 "smart meters" at homes across Maine — wireless meter-reading devices that use digital technology to measure electricity use. Smart meters are part of the nation's larger mission to create a smart electrical grid — one that can better predict peak energy use and system overloads, while accommodating renewable energy sources and two-way communication between consumers and producers. The meters will allow consumers to analyze their electricity use and adjust their behavior accordingly. The smart grid is one of the US Department of Energy's top priorities; a DOE publication claims that "transforming our nation's grid has been compared in significance with building the interstate highway system or the development of the internet."
Another indication of the federal government's interest: Central Maine Power got $90 million in stimulus money (half the total cost) for smart-meter installation.
But since the beginning, a vocal contingent of CMP customers has expressed concerns about the radio-frequency microwave radiation (a/k/a "RF") emitted by the smart meters, akin to that from cell phones or wireless routers. They worry about the health effects of such emissions, claiming that they cause dizziness, heart palpitations, nausea, and insomnia in individuals with "electrosensitivity" or already weakened immune systems. A 2011 World Health Organization report declared that RF radiation is a "possible human carcinogen," placing it in the same class with vehicle exhaust, lead, and DDT. Smart-meter opponents also have privacy concerns, pointing out that the devices can collect a detailed portrait of consumer habits.
"I and many others who have been involved with environmental issues for years consider the mandated deployment of radiation-emitting devices to be the biggest toxics issue of our time," says Maine activist Ed Friedman, who is currently leading the charge against smart meters. Friedman does not own a cell phone, a microwave, or a wireless router.
Central Maine Power claims the meters are safe and compliant with Federal Communications Commission regulations. "We don't do things that we think are unsafe," CMP spokesman John Carroll says bluntly.
A protracted legal battle, involving state courts and the Maine Public Utilities Commission, has developed. The first skirmish resulted in CMP being forced to offer customers the opportunity to opt out of the smart-meter program — for a fee ($40, plus $12 per month). About 8400 customers have chosen to opt out, Carroll says.
This summer, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the PUC hadn't adequately addressed health and safety concerns related to smart meters before installing the 620,000 units now humming away on Maine homes. The court ordered the PUC to launch a new, comprehensive investigation; the agency is currently collecting data, with hearings scheduled for March 2013.
Friedman's most recent salvo is a letter, dated October 1 and co-signed by more than 30 Mainers, to the state attorney general, claiming that CMP's opt-out fee is extortion. The AG has not yet responded.