By Jeremy Schwartz
Peninsula Daily News
PORT ANGELES — The city’s contractor for the beleaguered “smart meter” project lacked the skills and expertise to complete installation and managed the project poorly, a consultant told the City Council.
These shortcomings have placed the smart meter project in “imminent failure” and will require significant — and perhaps costly — changes on the part of Atlanta-based Mueller Systems to get it back on track, Tom Hulsebosch, energy and utilities practices managing director for West Monroe Partners, told the council during a nearly two-hour presentation Tuesday.
Hulsebosch said the smart meter program, also called the advanced metering infrastructure, or AMI project, cannot be completed as Mueller is currently managing it but could be salvaged if the company makes changes.
That could add $1.9 million to the $4.9 million the city has budgeted for Mueller Systems’ current contract.
“The ball is in Mueller’s court,” Hulsebosch said.
A representative of Mueller Systems could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Council members took no action on the smart meter project, meant to replace the city’s aging analog electric water meters with digital devices that can be read wirelessly.
Last month, the city declared Mueller in breach of contract for failing to met “crucial benchmarks” for the project and gave the company 60 days to formally respond.
“We are expecting a response probably next week,” said Craig Fulton, the city’s public works and utilities director.
Fulton said he expects the response to, at the least, include how Mueller intends to move forward to address project problems.
“We need an action plan,” he said.
The city is prevented by its contract with Mueller to consider alternatives outside of the company until Mueller has responded to the city’s contract-breach notice, Fulton said.
“[At this time], it would be inappropriate to provide any ways forward beyond this contract,” Fulton said.
The contract with Mueller does allow the city to work to recoup the money paid to the company if the system has not been put in place according to the contract requirements, Fulton has said.
The city had inked an $86,500 contract with Chicago-based West Monroe Partners in October to scrutinize the delayed smart meter project through interviews with city and Mueller staff and by reviewing reams of documents associated with the project.
The full installation of the new meters has been delayed by at least a year and a half since the council approved the contract with Mueller Systems in December 2010.
The city has paid Mueller $1.9 million of the contract so far, mostly for the purchase of the new devices themselves.
Smart meters would be able to send utility usage data wirelessly from homes and businesses to City Hall and receive information back.
Tests of batches of the 2,080 smart electricity meters and 1,200 smart water meters installed on city houses and businesses have failed to consistently send accurate usage data from the meters to city servers, Hulsebosch said.
City staff members continue to read the new meters manually, Hulsebosch said, and the city has not relied on the devices transmitting data wirelessly to City Hall.
“At no point were customers in danger of getting an improper bill,” Hulsebosch said.
He told the council that Mueller failed to develop work plans to install and test the system.
“Mueller had never completed the implementation plan. That’s a foundational document,” Hulsebosch said.
Some city residents have raised privacy and public health concerns about the smart meters. Between 60 and 70 people attended a September council meeting in opposition to the project.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Port Angeles resident Cindy Turney said she found research showing that the radio frequencies smart meters use to transmit information can be dangerous to human health and that the meters will cost residents more money.
Virginia Leinart, another city resident, told council members she thinks smart meters installed on residents’ homes would be an invasion of privacy.
“I would ask you to call for an end to smart meters in Port Angeles,” Leinart said.
“It would stop the big black boot of surveillance and remote control from entering our lives.”
The city has maintained that the meters will not harm human health, that they would collect only utility usage information from homes and businesses and would not be able to control personal appliances or violate anyone’s privacy.