By Jeremy Schwartz
Peninsula Daily News
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The city's $5.4 million advanced metering infrastructure project — commonly referred to as the AMI or “smart meter” project — was supposed to be wrapped up by last January.
But it has been plagued by issues connecting the city's utility customer information system with that of North-Carolina based Mueller Systems, which is installing the smart meters, city Power Resources Manager Phil Lusk said.
Slightly more than two years have passed since council members approved the project in 2010.
Installers with Mueller Systems started work on the meter project about 19 months ago, in June 2011.
City officials touted the project as a way for the city to reduce meter-reading costs and as away for customers to get a better handle of how much electricity and water they use.
Lusk said the new meters also will allow the city to collect data on water and power use as accurately as possible.
“The meters are [the city's] cash registers,” Lusk said.
“[So] we want to have the most accurate reporting tools available, and our customers will want that also.”
The smart meters eventually will replace all of the city's roughly 10,500 analog water and electric meters, both residential and commercial, with digital devices that can be read wirelessly from City Hall.
Installation of the first batch of 1,000 electric and 1,000 water meters on homes in a residential neighborhood around I Street in west Port Angeles was completed in 2011, Lusk said, but computer system problems delayed the replacement of analog meters with their digital counterparts.
The main issues have been allowing the two separate computer programs, the city's and Mueller's, to talk to each other so the city's system knows where the upgraded water and electric meters have been installed and can receive accurate information on a given home's water and electricity use, Lusk explained.
“To err is human, but to really foul things up, you have to involve computers,” Lusk said.
Lusk said that the target date for resolving these issues is this April, when the system test will be done and — if everything checks out — 1,000 more of each water and electric meters will be installed.
Meter replacement will then move neighborhood by neighborhood, Lusk said, with the remainder of the devices slated for installation by the end of the year.
The new smart meters installed on the homes of roughly 2,000 residential customers are still being read via visits from the city's meter readers, Lusk said, because the meters cannot yet transmit usage data to City Hall.
Despite the delays, Lusk said the installation contract with Mueller Systems was written so that the city does not pay anything extra if issues like the ones currently being dealt with were to arise.
“The delay is not costing any additional resources to the city,” Lusk said.
“We want to be very careful that we protect the interests of the citizens of Port Angeles.”
At the end of February last year, City Council members approved an $850,000 payment to Mueller Systems that was supposed to come only after the completion of the project's first phase, which the computer system issues have delayed.
At the time, Larry Dunbar, then the deputy power systems manager, said the payment was justified because neither the city nor Mueller was at fault for the delays and the company had had to stretch its resources longer than expected.
“Having these kinds of delays is not unheard of in a technology project,” Lusk said.
In November 2010, before the new meter installation work began, City Council members approved a $44,801 payment to Seattle-based marketing firm Parker LePla for a communications plan to familiarize Port Angeles residents with the idea of smart meters.
The entire marketing plan, which included the creation of a website, customer surveys, billing inserts, door hangers and other marketing materials, cost a total of $69,801, with the Bonneville Power Administration, which sells the city power, chipping in a $25,000 grant.
Once installation of the new meters begins again, customers will first receive a letter a few months in advance the telling them of their impending meter replacement and, 72 hours before installation, a door hanger giving them notice of installation, according to the city.
Customers — who do not have to be home during installation — will then receive another door hanger informing them that their meter replacement has been completed, according to an explainer posted on the city website dedicated to the smart meter project.
Port Angeles power and water customers cannot opt out of having smart meters installed on their homes, Lusk said.
Also posted on the city's smart meter page is information on radio frequency, or RF, energy, which is how the meters will eventually communicate with utility staff at City Hall.
Through this page, city staff address health concerns raised about RF energy and its effects on human biology by citing information from the Virginia Department of Health and Health Canada, Canada's federal health department, explaining that exposure to RF energy through smart meters does not pose a public health risk.
Additionally, Lusk said the amount of RF energy the city's smart meters will emit is well within the Federal Communication Commission's thresholds for human exposure.
Lusk said the city has heard concerns from a small number of Port Angeles resident during town hall meetings, the last of which was held Oct. 20, 2011, about RF exposure, but said he stands behind the information the city has provided on RF energy, which is a part of the electromagnetic frequency, or EMF, spectrum.
“We think the city has provided a science-based determination of the health affects of EMF,” Lusk said.
Health officials in other parts of the nation, including Texas and California, and in Canada have raised concerns about smart meters and the RF energy they emit.
California's Santa Cruz County commissioners ordered a yearlong moratorium on smart-meter installation last February until the meters can be more extensively studied, according to a February article in the Santa Cruz Sentinel.
Also in February 2012, Santa Cruz County utility officials decided that county residents could opt-out of having a smart meter installed on their homes.
Lusk said all smart meters are different and that the particular models Mueller Systems will install will transmit only for an hour per day.
Lusk said he was initially concerned about RF exposure when researching the city's smart meter switchover — and even bought a $600 device that measures RF energy.
But he came to the conclusion based on the scientific evidence that the risk to public health does not outweigh the benefits of the devices.
Reporter Jeremy Schwartz can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5074, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.