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Keep out: Environmental activist Ed Friedman says utilities are forcing smart meters on customers. Friedman stands next to an analog meter at a friend’s house in Bowdoinham, Maine.

Ed Friedman doesn’t mind the tinfoil-hat jokes. Just don’t install a smart meter on his house.

From his home in Bowdoinham, Maine, the helicopter pilot and environmental activist is leading opposition to digital electrical meters being installed by the local utility, Central Maine Power. The new devices, which use wireless radios to transmit data about electricity consumption, are touted as a critical component of a more intelligent electrical grid. With smart meters, consumers could track the price of electricity in real time, and utilities could lay off tens of thousands of meter readers.

Friedman, who carries a radio-frequency analyzer that emits frightening crackles around cell phones and Wi-Fi routers, says smart meters are a dangerous idea. They are an invasion of privacy and might even cause illness, he has alleged in a legal complaint set to be heard by the Maine Supreme Court next month.

“My home is my castle,” says Friedman. “And they want to receive and transmit from it without asking permission.”

Central Maine Power began installing the digital meters last year and has now put them on around 610,000 homes and businesses, including most residences in Maine. Spurred by several billion dollars in smart-grid incentives passed as part of the 2009 economic recovery act, utilities across the United States are quickly moving ahead with similar plans.

But the sudden appearance of the technology has sparked a national opposition movement, and poor communication by the utilities has not helped matters. In 2010, county officials in Marin County, a liberal bastion in California, voted to block the meters over health concerns. In Texas, Tea Party activists and militia members are now opposing smart meters and calling them Big Brother–type spying.

“This movement has brought together really strange bedfellows,” says Josh Hart, who helps organize smart-meter opponents from his website, Stopsmartmeters.org.

Hart got involved after his girlfriend became worried about the health effects of radio waves from the meter’s transmitter. “I called the company. I said we didn’t want one. And they said ‘You don’t have a choice.’ That got my back up,” he says. A onetime computer enthusiast, he has now gotten rid of his microwave, cell phone, and home Internet router. “In this country, we have no choices about technology,” he says.

The intensity of the opposition has caught utilities flat-footed. “It was stunning to us when we ran into the response that we got. We did not see it coming,” says John Carroll, a spokesman for Central Maine Power. Customers worried that smart meters could start fires, interfere with medical devices, or even cause cancer.

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Credit: Antonio Regalado

Tagged: Business, Business Impact, business

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