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Smart meter opponents make their case to regulators

Smart meter opponents asked state regulators at a hearing Tuesday to allow ratepayers to say "no" to new digital, wireless devices because of safety, privacy and security concerns.

The Maryland Public Service Commission is considering whether utilities should permit customers to reject smart meters and keep their existing devices.

The state's three largest utilities — Baltimore Gas and Electric, Pepco and Delmarva — are replacing millions of old electric and gas meters with new devices providing real-time data to consumers and utilities.

Douglas R.M. Nazarian, the commission's chairman, said the regulatory panel would not reconsider its decision to approve the deployment of smart meters in the state. The goal of Tuesday's hearing was to examine the cost and operational implications of allowing ratepayers to opt out of the system.

Nazarian also asked the utilities to provide information on possible alternative plans, such as allowing customers to set up a second phone line to transmit smart-meter data instead of having it sent wirelessly.

The PSC will issue a decision at a later date, but one commissioner revealed the direction he was leaning.

"The customers of Maryland should have the right to opt out if they choose," said longtime commissioner Harold Williams. "If there were a charge, it should be minimal to the customers of Maryland."

A growing number of customers in the state and elsewhere want to keep their present meters. Opponents packed a Baltimore hearing room Tuesday, some wearing "no smart meter" stickers.

"It should be our choice," said Traci Radice of Millersville, noting that several states have opt-out programs for utility customers.

Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin signed legislation last week prohibiting utilities from imposing opt-out fees on customers who don't want smart meters.

Some opponents believe the radio frequency waves emitted by the new devices are harmful, or potentially so.

"I don't want a smart meter until I know it's safe, and it's not," said Anita Moore, a veterinarian from Lothian who attended the hearing.

Utility officials disputed that characterization, telling the commissioners that radio waves from smart meters are below the exposure limits established by the Federal Communications Commission.

BGE, which began installing smart meters this month, also tried to dispel concerns that the devices could compromise ratepayers' privacy by exposing their utility data to possible hacking.

Like the utilities, the Maryland Energy Administration does not support letting ratepayers opt out.

The Public Service Commission's staff — which does not speak for the regulatory body — also opposes an opt-out, saying it would create a two-tier system in which customers who stick with older meters would have a lower quality of service.

Utilities and other smart meter supporters say customers who opt out should pay for costs associated with maintaining the older system, such as retaining meter readers and operating a separate billing system.

California's three utilities, for instance, charge opt-out customers $75 upfront plus a $10 monthly fee.

"I'm willing to pay a reasonable fee, but I want an independent expert to figure out the real costs and savings," said Jonathan Libber, president of Maryland Smart Meter Awareness, a group opposed to the new devices. "Letting BGE and Pepco determine the fee is letting the fox guard the henhouse."

Hanah.cho@baltsun.com

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