Six months have passed, and now the smart meter question is back.

The Independence City Council is scheduled to vote on whether to have advanced meter infrastructure for utilities, or AMI – better known as “smart meters” – installed at ratepayers’ homes across the city. The digital smart meters would replace the current analog meters.

The council had been scheduled to vote on the proposed $29.7 million contract with Core & Main last October. Independence Power & Light had shown analysis indicating the project could pay for itself in about eight years.

But after many citizens raised several concerns about fire and health safety, the lack of an opt-out and whether smart meters ultimately would lead to higher electric bills, the council voted 5-2 to table the vote for six months and have the project further vetted. The $2.6 million project management contract with West Monroe Partners also was tabled.

Council Member Tom Van Camp said before that vote he preferred to scrap the project. The other no voter, Curt Dougherty, said he hoped to have a local contractor as project manager and wanted to start with a “clean slate,” perhaps reviewing the bids. Dougherty later said smart meter project was a worthy initiative and the financial analysis was promising but that the council should take more time to make the most informed decision.

The runner-up vendor for the project, Honeywell, had bid just less than $35 million. Core & Main had agreed in October to hold its bid price for six months.

Power & Light Acting Director Andy Boatright said Friday that city staff plans to withdraw the proposed management contract and offer to work instead with a local individual contractor to be determined. Such a contractor would have experience with this type of project, Boatright said, and the city would save about $1.8 million in costs.

City staff also is drafting an opt-out policy for consideration, Boatright said.

Monday’s vote on the smart meter project would take place before the City Council changeover, when newly elected Mike Huff, a retired IPL manager, replaces outgoing at-large Council Member Chris Whiting.

How does it work?

The city started exploring AMI more than two years ago, at the council's suggestion, and eventually selected HD Supply (later renamed Core & Main) over Honeywell from seven initial proposals.

The digital smart meters would be installed over three years, replacing IPL’s 50,000-plus analog meters. The smart meters would be read by city utilities -- electricity and water -- through a secure, cloud-based system.

The cost would be shared by the city's three utilities – IPL, water and water pollution control – and would be paid over 10 years. City officials say the utilities have cash on hand to pay for it.

The city utilities would see savings or benefits from staff reallocations, less vehicle expenses and replacement costs, reduced theft and possibly increased revenue from more accurate readings. After the break-even point, they likely would realize savings of millions of dollars.

Customers would benefit, the city says, from better outage response times, their ability to track their energy usage more closely – including through a smartphone – and the utilities possibly staving off rate increases because of the savings they realize.

Contractors would make the meter exchanges, and customers would not have to pay if any defects in the current meter structures – particularly older ones that might not have been disturbed for years – prevent an immediate exchange.

Boatright said a total of 19 positions would be affected, but not for a few years, and some employees would be offered training or education for new assignments.

Objections

Several citizens voiced their objections about smart meters to the council and in letters to The Examiner before the initial scheduled vote last October and in the months since.

Among their objections, besides the fear of higher bills: concerns about exposure to radio frequency waves, fire hazards and various privacy concerns. Those include outside hackers collecting personal data, information finding its way to third parties, and the utilities being able to track specific activities inside homes.

IPL responses

Boatright said the technology behind smart meters has improved greatly from even a few years ago, when he oversaw the start of a smart meter implementation with a utility in Ohio.

Kansas City Power & Light and the Board of Public Utilities in Kansas City, Kansas, have installed smart meters and report minimal or no fires from the devices, as noted in a city report discussing customer concerns. Boatright said issues that do arise often happen from an older utility structure that can't support a smart meter, or other outside factors. The project has budgeted costs to fix such utility structure issues from the onset.

The city's Advisory Board of Health said the World Health Organization has found “no convincing evidence supporting short- or long-term adverse health effects caused by exposure to the low-level radio frequency energy” from the transmitters, and it learned that radio frequency waves are essentially similar to that of a typical cell or cordless phone, but smart meters emit a fraction of the radio waves per day as the typical cell phone.

While energy usage typically is higher when a customer is at home, the city says in its report that a smart meter can't identify what activities are taking place or the specific appliance in use. The data transmitted by smart meters would not include personally identifiable information – merely a meter identification number and electric or water usage – and the city does not permit sharing of customer's personal information to any third party without a customer's written authorization or law enforcement or public agency request.

Whereas cyber intruders work remotely through the internet, the radio-based smart meters don't offer that option, the city says. All told, it makes smart meter “an unlikely and unprofitable target for hackers.”

The Public Utilities Advisory Board approved the AMI project after reviewing the city's report.