Grievances filed by 20 Central Maine Power residential customers citing safety concerns over the wireless radios in smart meters led the Maine PUC to vote unanimously to investigate the feasibility of providing an opt-out option to wireless smart meter connections, the MPUC announced on Tuesday.  The investigation “will determine if the alleged position of CMP [of providing no opt-out option in the Smart Meter program installation] is ‘unreasonable, insufficient or unjustly discriminatory.’” The investigation will also consider the possible effect of an opt-out from the DOE grant funding half the smart meter rollout, what alternatives are feasible but not cost prohibitive or detrimental to the smart meter rollout.

Among the documents buried in the dockets (numbers 2010-345 and 2010-389) is a rather lengthy report that provides an “Assessment of Radiofrequency Microwave Radiation Emissions from Smart Meters” by Sage Associates Environmental Consultants.  Issued on New Year’s Day, this 68-page potato gun blast at smart meters summarizes findings from computer modeling to predict whether smart meters installed in California could, under certain situations and types of exposure, exceed allowable FCC guidelines for radiofrequency radiation. 

The models predict that potential for FCC violations exists if people put their face three inches away from smart meters (so much for using smart meters as vanity mirrors).  In a frightening blow to mothers everywhere, the report also finds that FCC violations could occur at a distance of eleven inches from a nursery (assuming there are multiple smart meters, or one collector meter, or one collector meter mounted together with several smart meters at that distance).  Note: it may be time to cross smart meters off the list of techno Baby Mozart playpen toys.

The same report also states that “[s]afety standards for peak exposure limits to radiofrequency have not been developed to take into account the particular sensitivity of the eyes, testes and other ball-shaped organs. There are no peak power limits defined for the eyes and testes, and it is not unreasonable to imagine situations where either of these organs comes into close contact with smart meters and/or collector meters, particularly where they are installed in multiples [on walls of multi-family dwellings that are accessible as common areas].”  The industry does get a little too excited about smart meters sometimes, but we question whether people really want to engage with energy consumption data on such a personal level.   

The point is not that environmental consulting firms and environmentally concerned attorneys and citizens are not important -- they are, or they can be.  John Travolta's role as a crusading attorney in 1998's A Civil Action comes to mind.  Rather, it is that seemingly smart, well-educated people can get drawn into all manner of ridiculous assignments to generate certain types of “findings,” especially if they are consultants and a client project with good money is involved. 

Truth be told, anything can be dangerous, especially if it is powered by electricity.  Does it make sense to outlaw incandescent light bulbs because a lit 100-watt bulb cannot be safely licked like an ice cream cone? Surely, many a light bulb has caused a tragic fire.  But no one in their right mind would toss a light bulb into a baby’s crib -- at least I hope they wouldn’t. 

Let’s face it: we are all surrounded by danger. Further, we are inundated by a constant barrage of radio frequencies. We get “zapped” when we walk into a Wi-Fi hotspot, drive through a Fast Lane toll booth, walk through those weird security door wands at the drug store, get x-rayed at an airport, or talk on a wireless phone.  It may still be possible to get away from all that spectral inaudible noise, but you would have to go out of your way to do it -- for instance, to upstate Maine. 

This brings up a final point, one based more on New England sensibility than intellect or reason.  Maybe, in a strange way, it makes sense for a couple of people in Maine to be able to opt out of the invisible radio wave cacophony of everyday life.  Maybe a few CMP customers should be able to opt for a landline to be connected to their smart meter.  Perhaps a refuge should exist for the radio frequency-wary.  Backwoods Maine is probably as good a place to go as any other if you want to try. 

Let’s hope, though, that the same people that want to opt out of wireless smart meters don’t also have any of the following in their home: wireless routers, mobile phones, wireless phone handsets (for their landline), microwave ovens, or any other device that emits radiofrequency naughtiness. 

The irony would just be too great to bear.