Four major electricity providers defended the safety of "smart meters" Tuesday at a hearing called by the Maryland Public Service Commission after commissioners read reports of similar meters overheating and catching fire in Southeastern Pennsylvania.
"We've had five cases so far where the temperature threshold was exceeded," said Michael Butts, Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.'s director of business transformation. He said BGE has installed 65,000 of the advanced meters.
In all five cases, the overheating was detected by sensors in the meters and BGE was alerted, he said. None of the meters failed or was damaged by the overheating, Butts said.
Butts and other utility executives told the commission they believed aging electrical sockets in consumers' homes were largely to blame for the problems.
The hearing, hastily called by the commission after a Pennsylvania utility this month suspended smart meter installations following reports that 15 of 186,000 new devices had overheated, was the first public airing in Maryland of yet another issue involving the meters.
Opponents of the meters — who were not allowed to address the commissioners Tuesday — have raised concerns about the devices' safety since the replacement of analog meters was proposed six years ago.
Smart meter opponents worry about the wireless radio-frequency radiation emitted by the new meters, which transmit information about electricity use to energy providers. The privacy of the network and the utilities' policies governing distribution of consumers' usage information are also issues that opponents say have not been adequately addressed.
"We're still concerned; the testimony did not allay our fears," said Christine Hoch, executive director of the Center for Safer Wireless. "We would like to see a moratorium on smart meters until they are studied with independent funding and found to be completely safe."
Hoch's group was one of several that expressed anger about not being able to counter the utilities' claims Tuesday. Representatives from the Anne Arundel County Council for the Environment, members of Maryland Smart Meter Awareness and Del. Glen Glass, a Republican who represents Harford and Cecil counties, protested outside the PSC's Baltimore offices before attending the hearing.
"I thought they worked for the State of Maryland," Glass said of the commissioners. "They wouldn't even let a delegate speak."
PSC Chairman Douglas Nazarian said the commission would decide on further action after it considers the utilities' testimony.
"This is a first step," Nazarian said. "All we know is what we have discovered on our own in the press."
Earlier this month, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Peco Energy Co., a division of Exelon Corp. that serves the greater Philadelphia region, stopped installing smart meters while it investigated overheating units, including one that caught fire in Bucks County. Nazarian said the commissioners learned of the issue in trade publications.
In addition to Exelon-owned BGE, Potomac Electric Power Co. and Delmarva Power and Light Co. — both divisions of Pepco Holdings Inc. — and Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative Inc. were summoned to testify Tuesday about the brand of advanced meters they use and whether they have experienced malfunctions.
BGE does not use smart meters made by Sensus, the company that produces Peco's meters, executives said. Southern Maryland does use meters manufactured by Sensus and by another company.
None of the utilities reported overheating that they attributed to the new meters.
Even if old sockets are to blame for the overheating and fires, smart meters are still dangerous, with flammable plastic components, said George Karadimas, a member of Maryland Smart Meter Awareness.
"It's like having a firecracker on the side of your house," he said.
For now, the commission is allowing Maryland consumers to opt out of having a smart meter installed. But the PSC has not yet determined if customers will be able to permanently defer smart meter installation.
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