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The Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative is waiting for state approval to replace the electric meters of its 152,000 customers in the region with advanced meters that will automatically report usage.

The current meters are manually read once a month.

SMECO began the project on a trial run in Waldorf where it has been successful, said Ken Capps, senior vice president for engineering and operations.

The cost of the installation is $41.2 million, which includes $7.8 million in operations and maintenance, said Tom Dennison, public affairs manager for SMECO. The utility expects $98.4 million in savings over 18 years.

The smart meters drastically reduce the time it takes to read electricity usage.

The Maryland Public Service Commission heard testimony Tuesday from SMECO and other utilities that have similar plans.

A group called Maryland Smart Meter Awareness has concerns the new meters can start fires and invade privacy.

“We were not allowed to testify” on Tuesday, said Jonathan Libber, president of the group.

He said smart meters installed in Philadelphia may have been the cause of 12 fires there. “The wiring did fine until they put the smart meters on it,” he said. The smart meters “are not listed by [Underwriters Laboratories] or similar certified agencies,” he said.

The meters there are essentially the same that SMECO intends to use, he said. “It’s too early to say SMECO’s out of the woods.”

In Waldorf, 897 smart meters were installed on homes and businesses, according to SMECO’s filing with the public service commission. The failure rate of the meters was 1.4 percent due to various problems.

Another 1,000 smart meters were installed in the complex of Patuxent River Naval Air Station, as mandated by the contract to take over the bases’s power system, Capps said.

“We have received no high-heat alarms, no overheating or fire issues,” Capps said. The meters have a sensor to detect excessive heat because it would affect the computer chips inside.

When the smart meter rollout begins, SMECO will check the electrical connections within for all of the old meters, he said. “We’re prepared to make repairs when we go out there. We’re going to take care of it ourselves,” he said, rather than having customers having to hire an electrician.

Libber also said the smart meters pose potential health problems. “They’re using very intense radiation” to transmit data, he said, and the meters were “never tested for health/safety impacts.”

“The meter is not always transmitting,” Capps said, and when it does it comes from a 2-watt transmitter.

An Aug. 6, 2010, letter to Sage Associates Environmental Consultants of California from the Federal Communications Commission addressed concerns about smart meters.

The consultant questioned the impact of multiple meters in a concentrated area and the interference on medical devices. “The Smart Meter wireless technologies used today are not significantly different from Wi-Fi devices, cellphones and other typical consumer products,” wrote Julius Knapp, chief of the office of engineering and technology for the FCC.

With the smart meters, Libber said utilities would be able to virtually peer into people’s homes, knowing when they come and go and which devices they are using inside. That kind of data could then be sold to advertisers, he said.

Measuring which devices are used, “We’re not going to be able to do that,” Capps said, though future technology may manage when major appliances are used based on when electricity is cheaper to use, like later at night.

But right now, “The utility’s not going to know what’s going on inside the home,” Capps said.

Based on another utility’s pilot program with smart meters, “We have never seen any savings from these meters,” Libber said.

“The operating savings pay for the system on its own,” Capps said.

SMECO pays an outside contractor $92,000 a month to read meters.

The smart meters would also assist in outages. If the power goes out, the meter will report that. “You don’t have to be at home and we’re going to be notified,” Capps said.

jbabcock@somdnews.com