Smart Grid/Meter Info

(NOTE: As of July 2012, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court has ruled that the Public Utilities Commission failed to properly address health and safety concerns regarding Central Maine Power's use of Smart Meters and remanded this issue back to the Public Utilities Commission. The Public Utilities Commission has opened a docket to examine the health and safety issues.)

PUC Approves smart meter opt out program.

On May 17, 2011 the Maine Public Utilities Commission ordered CMP to create an opt out program for customers who do not want a wireless smart meter. This decision was the result of an investigation following numerous complaints from customers about health and privacy concerns. View a copy of the Commission's order. In the short term, CMP will be preparing a communication program that will inform customers about the meters and the option.

Options and costs. Customers will have four options.

  1. CMP's standard smart meter. There is no extra charge associated with this option.
  2. Retain your existing analog meter. Customers who choose this option will be charged $40.00 up front and will have $12.00 added to their monthly bill.
  3. CMP's standard meter with the transmitter off. Customers who choose this option will be charged $20.00 up front and will have $10.50 added to their monthly bill.
  4. Relocate CMP's standard smart meter. Customers would be responsible for the costs of having their meter moved, but would have no other ongoing charges. This option is not new, but may provide relief to some customers since it may allow for the meter to be further from the inhabited portions of the house.

Why are opt out customers required to pay? The investigation conducted at the PUC indicated that there are costs associated with the existing analog and the transmitter off options. These include the costs of having those meters read manually, and insuring that the smart meter system will function properly even with some customers opting out, and other charges. These costs were reviewed by Commission Staff and by experts hired by the Public Advocate and appear to be reasonably necessary. The issue of who pays these costs is troublesome. On the one hand, the question of whether it is fair to require people to pay extra to feel that they have a healthy home is a legitimate one. On the other hand, it is unfair to require customers who do not want to opt out to pay for those who do. This would happen if the costs of the opt out program were put into the rates paid by all. Given this poor choice, the Public Advocate chose to support the Staff's proposal in which the costs become the responsibility of the opt out customers. This is what was approved by the Commission. We asked for, and the Commission approved a break for those low income customers who qualify for LIHEAP assistance.

The method of notifying customers about the options was spelled out in the Commission's Order as follows:

If CMP has not yet installed smart meters in your area: "before beginning deployment in a particular area, CMP provide notice to customers in that area about the opt-out options available consistent with the communications plan described in this Order, and provide customers with 30 days from when the notice is sent to make an opt-out enrollment decision and inform CMP of their election. CMP shall begin providing such notifications as soon as reasonably possible, but in no event later than 30 calendar days after the date of this Order."

If CMP has installed meters in your area and you have already asked not to have one: "within 30 calendar days after the date of this Part I Order, for customers in areas in which deployment has occurred, CMP contact customers that have requested that a smart meter not be installed and provide notice to those customers about the opt-out options available consistent with the communications plan described in this Order. CMP may notify customers who use e-billing to pay their monthly CMP bill by email or phone and all other customers by phone."

The PUC's order approving the opt out plan contains the following description of the communication plan CMP must prepare: CMP shall "develop and implement a communication plan that shall inform customers about the opt-out program during smart meter deployment. The communication plan must provide the following information:

  1. A description of the smart meter program, including wireless smart meter capabilities and communication mode;
  2. The benefits of wireless smart meters and the smart meter program;
  3. The opt-out options available;
  4. Information regarding the development of standard wireless smart meters with the NIC operating in receive-only mode and an estimated date that they will be available for deployment;
  5. The capabilities and communication modes of the opt-out options;
  6. The process to select an opt-out option;
  7. The opt-out option charges (i.e., the Initial and Monthly Charges and the late opt-out election surcharge); and
  8. The existing meter relocation alternative.

The communications plan should incorporate both written communications and communication via CMP's website. The term "wireless" shall be used when describing standard smart meters. CMP shall continue the plan until such time as the Commission determines it is no longer of benefit to ratepayers."

Low income customers who qualify for LIHEAP assistance were granted a discount on the opt out charges. The Commission's Order stated that "for customers determined eligible for LIHEAP whose income is determined to be equal to or less than 100% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines, both the Initial and ongoing Monthly Charges associated with the opt-out option selected by the customer will be reduced by 50%, and for LIHEAP-eligible customers whose income is determined to be greater than 100% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines, the charges will be reduced by 25%."

A. What is the Smart Grid?

"Smart grid" is a loose term for any application of digital technology to electric transmission and distribution systems. Smart grid technology has the potential to change the way that energy is used and controlled. There are digital devices, for example, that can monitor local control centers and provide specific data for use in the operation of the bulk power transmission system.

At the local "distribution" level, for the customers of CMP and Bangor Hydro, the smart grid takes the form of new meters. Most Bangor Hydro customers already have such meters and CMP has just begun the installation of these meters (a process that will take a year and a half). There is a difference between Bangor Hydro's and CMP's meters in how they send information back to the utility. BHE's meters send the information along the actual power lines and CMP's use radio transmissions. These smart meters, together with radio transmitters, collectors their respective communication hardware and a central data management computer make up, for both utilities, new technology known as Advanced Metering Infrastructure or AMI. For both utilities, the Public Utilities Commission has approved the installation and use of AMI.

What makes these meters different from the old electromechanical meters is their ability to transmit data from the meter to the collectors and on to the central computer without the need for a meter reader. Data can be transmitted frequently, like once every fifteen minutes, or less frequently, like once per day. Each transmission lasts less than a second. Also, unlike the old meters, utilities can "ping" or test the meters from the central office to see if the customer has power. According to the utilities' promises, this should help with power restoration efforts following storms. Despite an AMI track record of several years in various places throughout the world, neither CMP or Bangor Hydro presented any meaningful evidence that outages experienced by customers will be shorter when they sought approval for their projects.

Two Ways to Save: Another promise touted by CMP and Bangor Hydro is that customers will have the ability to save money in one of two ways. First, customers will be able to see their usage in real time (if they are willing and able to purchase a device known as an In Home Display, currently costing about $150) or on the following day if the customer has a personal computer. In these cases, customers can begin to get a better sense of how they use power and may be able to adjust usage to save. Second, "dynamic pricing" rate plans may allow customers to save during peak usage times (hot summer days) by using less. If you are home during such days, and have electrical appliances you can turn down or off, you may be able to save under this type of plan. In the long run, we understand that new appliances will be able to communicate with the meters in ways that could lead to more efficient power use and lower bills.

We Opposed the Utilities' Requests. At this time, we are not convinced that the promises of AMI outweigh the risks and we remain concerned that the reality will be quite different from the predictions. This is a technology that is evolving, and we are concerned that the systems being installed now may soon become obsolete or suffer from debilitating "bugs" and other problems. Dynamic pricing rate plans will not work if customers are not motivated to use these features or can't cut back on usage at the peak time. Also, this technology is vulnerable to cyber-attacks. We are concerned about the possibility that someone might be able to figure out how to get into the utility's AMI central system and cause damage. Finally, the approved costs of these systems were based on utility estimates. In our experience, estimates are always lower than the actual final costs and we are very concerned that the final cost of CMP's and Bangor Hydro's AMI systems will add a significant burden to customers whose electric bills are already too high.

The Public Advocate presented these arguments to the Commission back when the utilities were seeking approval for the investement, but each request was approved over our objections. Not only did the Commission approve the projects, but earlier in its case, when CMP sought to suspend its request for authority to invest in AMI, the Commission encouraged them not to. We sincerely hope our fears do not come true, and that AMI becomes the useful and cost-effective tool the utilities say it is. Because we know that not all customers are able or willing to participate, we will insist that any rate or usage application be strictly voluntary. Customers may simply not be interested or motivated to take the time to save what might turn out to be a very small amount of money. On the other hand, there are surely customers who look forward to the opportunity to save on their bills (and help reduce pollution from power plants) by using the additional information provided by the meters to cut back on their usage.

1. Remote Disconnection

Some of CMP's meters will allow the utility to remotely disconnect and reconnect service. This makes sense for rental units, especially those that have shown high tenant turnover. CMP will also use them, however, for customers who have a history of difficulty paying bills. While current PUC rules allow for this, we view this as very risky because of the possibility that the wrong house will be disconnected or that reconnection will malfunction. Also, when a CMP worker physically visits the premises to disconnect the power it not only reduces the chance of a wrongful disconnection, it also gives a non-paying customer one last chance to pay and avoid the dark. These benefits and protections vanish with AMI.

The following articles and links have been gathered from various sources throughout the country. We intend to update this page with news from Maine and articles from elsewhere.