Leesburg is poised next week to ram down the throats of electrical ratepayers a controversial "smart grid" project that will cost a minimum of $24.4 million in the first 10 years and at least another $12 million in the next decade.
And what do electric customers get out of it? They get to pay for much of it, of course. And — if they choose to actively participate — they might be able to lower their electric bill at some point.
Smart grid may be the best thing that ever came to Leesburg — or it may be a disastrous mess that leaves the public saddled with millions of dollars of debt for years to come.
But residents paying the freight can't possibly have any clear idea of the pros and cons because of the way City Manager Jay Evans has chosen to shove this expensive and dubious project through the system.
His plan is to brief each city commissioner individually and privately about the system this week — of course, they'll hear only cheery accounts — and then bring it before them in a meeting at 5:30 p.m. Nov. 28. He expects them to vote that night.
"Why would you think we couldn't do it in a single meeting?" Evans countered last week when asked why sessions to discuss the complicated project with residents aren't planned.
He said he has "engaged the community" by speaking to various civic groups over the last two years. Leesburg is well aware that smart grid is coming, he contended.
Really? Can anyone out there state the cost of the project, along with its pros and cons? No, no one can. That's because the first time the price ever has even been disclosed publicly was in the first sentence of this column. There have been no public meetings for folks who aren't members of a civic group to learn how smart grid might affect them. And don't count on city management to even think of airing the bad side of smart grid for discussion.
Chicago suburb's experience
Asked for the cost more than a month ago, Evans spent taxpayer money for the city's attorney to fight to keep the cost secret from the taxpayers. The dispute between the Orlando Sentinel, which requested the information, and the city finally ended several days ago, when Evans reluctantly released the costs on proposed contracts with General Electric, which is to build and manage the system. He also laid out the portion the city will do on its own.
How could city commissioners possibly allow such a controversial project to come slamming through the system with so little exchange between the government and the people paying the bills?
Evans said he doesn't think people will be at all concerned about smart grid. After all, he said, they ignored the city's $17 million refurbishment of a sewer plant.
The city manager's comments poignantly display either a dramatic ignorance of the democratic process or a frightening damn-the-torpedoes commitment to a project that very well could have drastic consequences for the 21,000 customers of the city's electric utility.
Ironically, Leesburg's closed-mouth approach to installing smart meters as part of an upgrade to the grid is typical of such projects across the country, a number of which now are blowing up in the faces of those who thrust smart grid onto the unaware customer.
A minimum of research would allow Evans to find industry blogs that detail not only what must be done to turn customers into partners — and that's absolutely critical — but discuss why many gigantic utilities have begun to back away from smart grid amid the shifting sands of the emerging industry.
Take, for example, Naperville, Ill., a Chicago suburb that is installing about 57,000 meters to kick off its $22 million project.
Last week, the Naperville Smart Meter Awareness Group dumped a petition with 4,209 signatures on the city clerk's desk. It calls for a referendum to ask: "Shall the city of Naperville immediately and permanently stop the implementation of the $22 million smart meter project and dismantle all related equipment?"
Two weeks ago, the City Council there approved the final piece of the project, but one of the dissenting commissioners said he was troubled by the lack of transparency and the failure of the city to publicize the process.
"I've been left out of the loop," said Doug Krause, who also is a member of the city's Public Utilities Advisory Board, according to news accounts.
Public discussion vital
Zowie. Normally, one would wonder how such a thing could happen, but a glance at the way Leesburg has gone about this answers the question. Consider that a steaming Mayor Bill Polk declared last week that he had no idea what the cost of smart grid was expected to be and wasn't happy about getting so little information as the project progressed.
Evans' contention that there's really not much to talk about is either a deliberate obfuscation orwildly naïve. Either possibility ought to scream to commissioners that they should be doing their own research and asking critical, probing questions in more than a single meeting in which they're expected to rubber-stamp smart grid.
Here are a couple of things to start the conversation: Consider that Naperville is paying about $386 per meter to get its smart grid going. Evans wants commissioners to approve a cost of $608 per meter, roughly 58 percent more than Naperville's project.
And then there's the issue of rates. If customers are either too busy or don't opt to participate by doing things like starting laundry at 2 a.m. rather than during a peak time, what will happen? Would customers who can't or won't change their electric use schedules be paying considerably more?
And the city perhaps won't be saving the $7.8 million it expects in the first 10 years if residents fail to reduce their electricity use during peak times so that the cost of the power to the city during those times is 10 percent less than it is now. That could knock the city's break-even point forward from the current projection of five years, thereby reducing smart grid's expected wonderfulness. So, you see, success depends all completely on the customers.
Also, some questions loom about the city's choice to use GE. The city, in a document hundreds of pages long, asked for bids to construct the smart-grid project. When city managers couldn't get the cost of the project down, they changed how it would be done.
This happened less than six weeks ago, after nearly a year of negotiating with GE. Instead of moving on to a second bidder, the city chose to stay with GE but allow that company to own the "brains" of the system and to operate it. Plenty of pros and cons of this new strategy are open to discussion.
Of course, some responsibility lies with Leesburg residents and electric customers. If they don't begin asking questions, they may get a system they love. Or they may get a costly disaster.
Public discussion is the key. It's the one thing that people deserve, and it's the city's job to make sure it happens.
Lritchie@tribune.com. Her blog is at OrlandoSentinel.com/laurenonlake.