Legislators heard an outpouring of complaints Thursday about smart meters from Maryland utility customers who want to be allowed to opt out without charge.
Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. and other Maryland utilities are installing the meters — which send wireless data about energy use and allow the companies to pinpoint outages — as part of a nationwide push to jettison analog meters that require in-person reading. Utilities say the new technology will reduce costs and enable customers to better manage their energy use.
But here and elsewhere, the shift has kicked off a countermovement of smart-meter foes with concerns about health effects, privacy, the cost of installation and other issues. Many of the approximately 20 people who testified in support of the opt-out bill are worried about radio frequency energy — the radiation emitted by smart meters and cellphones.
"I can't believe I am begging to not have a product forced on me," said Sueann West, a retired software engineer from Annapolis. "Why should a power company have that right?"
Said Jan Davis, a Montgomery County resident with a background in public health: "We should all have the right not to do this, and we shouldn't have to pay."
Maryland's Public Service Commission, which oversees utilities, is allowing customers to put off getting a smart meter while it considers whether to approve a permanent opt-out. Commissioners said in January that they are weighing an opt-out or a low- or no-radiation smart meter for those who want that alternative. Any opt-out would come with an "appropriate" charge to be determined, they said.
Utilities say they will have additional costs if some customers stick with the old-style meters because that would require maintaining two data-management systems, employing meter readers and keeping the older meters working.
A growing number of states allow customers to opt out, but nearly all those programs come with a monthly charge.
The Public Service Commission's chairman, W. Kevin Hughes, testified Thursday that his panel heard no convincing evidence of health risks from smart meters. Commissioners intend to offer an alternative because some customers have a good-faith belief to the contrary, he said.
But smart-meter opponents testified that many studies have linked radio frequency radiation to health problems, and they pointed to the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer classifying it as "possibly carcinogenic." Several opponents said during and after the hearing that no one has specifically studied the health effects of smart meters in the home.
"We're not talking junk science," said Jonathan Libber, president of Maryland Smart Meter Awareness, a citizens group pushing for the opt-out, after the hearing. "We're talking no science."
Such complaints struck some members of the House Economic Matters Committee, who wondered why no federal agency had produced a study.
"Smart meters are a relatively new phenomenon," said Michael Butts, director of smart grid for BGE.
Before the hearing, BGE officials said the World Health Organization classification of radio frequency radiation puts those emissions in the same category as coffee, pickled vegetables and other everyday items also labeled as possibly carcinogenic.
Some legislators appeared to have doubts about the more than 1,000 studies that smart-meter foes said showed negative effects from radio frequency radiation. Del. Donna M. Stifler, a Republican from Harford County, asked about the statistical significance of the findings and wanted to see the research.
Mary Steele, who testified in favor of the opt-out, said she dismissed the idea of wireless devices causing health problems until she installed an additional wi-fi router in her home. She said she felt so terrible she could barely function. Three days after she turned the router off, "I was completely symptom-free."
Del. Glen Glass, the bill's lead sponsor, tried to get similar legislation passed last year. This time he has the support of a more organized smart-meter opposition that includes members of the tea party movement and the Montgomery County Green Party.
"This bill is about freedom," said Glass, a Republican who represents parts of Harford and Cecil counties. "Freedom of choice."