At the William Donald Schaefer building on St. Paul Street in Baltimore on Tuesday, May 22, the 16th-floor hearing room was the site of a protracted session on the issue of "should electric utility companies offer an opt-out option for customers who do not want smart meters" (PSC cases 9207 and 9208). The duty and responsibility to consider cases 9207 and 9208 and render a decision as to whether there will be an opt-out or not rests with the Maryland Public Service Commission, also known as the PSC.
On Tuesday at the Maryland PSC, utility companies and individuals alike testified during proceedings that lasted over 11 hours and which were attended by scores of people. Both of these figures—the number of people and the duration of the proceedings—indicate intense and widespread interest in the issue of smart meters and the desire to opt out. Although no one can say for sure at this point how many customers might choose to opt out, the figure of 1 percent of customers potentially opting out was mentioned several times.
Per the routine protocol of the PSC, those entities designated as official parties to the case spoke first, and spoke at length, as expected. The Maryland Energy Administration spoke and angered some in the audience when the MEA spokesman characterized those who would choose not to get a smart meter as those who "don't care about saving energy."
Next, the PSC staff opinion, presented by Carl Timmerman, aligned exactly with the opinion and publicly stated desires of Baltimore Gas and Electric (BG&E). The representatives from Pepco and Delmarva Power spoke for only a few minutes.
BG&E presented a panel of experts, including BG&E officials and a consulting scientist. The panelists spoke for about an hour, presenting a complete case addressing concerns ranging from cyber security to health effects to potential customer benefits to the cost that opt-out ratepayers would be asked to pay, should there be an opt-out in the future.
However, even after hearing all of this, the individual citizens were not swayed. In addition to individuals, two citizen groups each had representatives speak: Maryland Smart Meter Awareness was represented by Jonathan Libber, a lawyer formerly at the EPA and who was skeptical about the cost, safety and benefits of smart meters, and a group of Anne Arundel County environmental activists headed by former Maryland state delegate Mary M. Rosso, who spoke about their history of dealing with BG&E.
Hour after hour, the commissioners listened patiently to the testimony of the impassioned individuals. As it turned out, no one who spoke as an individual was in support of the smart meters, with some people going so far as to say that "an opt-out is not sufficient ... we request a moratorium."
Although the oral comments made for the record are officially labeled as "testimony," Chris Bush (an official party to this matter), acting as an independent watchdog, noted that none of the testimony was sworn under oath, and as such, he felt a degree of uncertainty that each claim made that day by parties with vested material interests might not turn out to be completely true.
Several members of the public spoke with deep personal conviction about their experiences with BG&E and their resulting distrust of BG&E on every subsequent issue.
The representative for BG&E said that it was not fair to have such allegations entered into the record, because PSC hearing protocol prevented BG&E from addressing or rebutting these claims on a case-by-case basis.
The testimony of the public centered on concerns about privacy, cost and savings, and issues with health effects and health problems, illustrated by numerous personal anecdotes. After dozens and dozens of testimonies, these main concepts were reinforced again and again as each additional speaker contributed his or her own variation to these central themes.
One audience member concluded that smart meters are neither necessary nor sufficient for energy savings. The Public Service Commission appears to be prepared to render a decision within one month on whether to grant an opt-out option.