Naperville files suit against smart grid vendor

<p>An old electric meter is compared to the new <a id=Smart Grid meter which will be placed at homes around Naperville.  |  Photo courtesy of city of Naperville.  

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An old electric meter is compared to the new Smart Grid meter which will be placed at homes around Naperville.  |  Photo courtesy of city of Naperville.  

Naperville is going to court concerning one of the vendors involved in its shift to a smart grid electric distribution system, asserting that the company fell short of meeting its contracted obligations for a portion of the project.

At least one city official is predicting the work woes will delay the smart grid’s comprehensive functions from going online for several more months at least.

A lawsuit filed Friday accuses Calico Energy Systems of breach of contract. The Bellevue, Wash., business was hired in 2010 to enable the interactive capabilities of the ePortal feature that will allow customers to sign on and monitor the details of electricity consumption provided by the smart meters installed on their homes and businesses last year.

Electricity users will then be able to make adjustments, if they wish, to reduce the power they use and the fees they pay for the electricity supplied by the city-owned utility.

One of about 15 contractors and subcontractors retained to work on the $22 million project, Calico was in line for more than $900,000 in payments for the ePortal work. It has collected $779,550 of that, which the suit seeks to recover, along with reimbursement for the city’s expenses for other vendors after the work with Calico began to go wrong.

“This was going to provide users a way to possibly reduce electricity use through time of use,” said Linda LaCloche, the city’s communications manager.

Councilman Bob Fieseler, who serves on the Smart Grid Steering Committee, said Calico began about a year ago sending portions of the newly developed software to the city for testing. It didn’t go well, he said.

“In Calico’s case, the number of criteria that weren’t satisfied remained very high,” Fieseler said.

More troubles

When the troubles came to light and were reported to Calico, a revised version would be sent for another round of tests, according to the city.

“We would find not only had they not fixed a lot of those that were scheduled to be fixed, but some of the ones that had been fine, had been accepted, were now out of compliance,” said Fieseler, who describes the ePortal as similar to an Internet router. “Upstream we really have no problems with the meters. What happens with the customer interface is more subtle.”

City Attorney Margo Ely, who described Calico as “on the brink of bankruptcy,” said the contract called for the vendor to reach certain incremental milestones, with payments made as the process moved ahead.

“What we found was that, although the milestones at the time appeared to have been met … what we thought had been done was not actually done,” Ely said.

Calico officials could be reached for comment Monday.

While failure to perform is difficult to quantify, Ely said Calico’s work appeared to run into delays when unforeseen issues arose in the course of working toward the various milestones.

“We weren’t really moving forward with both feet,” she said. “You would have to take a couple steps back.”

Originally expected to be online by the end of 2013, the portal was to be phased in as Calico completed the work. The initial function was to provide a dashboard to give utility customers data in graphic form. In the second phase, customers could peruse and select their rate options, choosing a fixed rate or paying at levels that fluctuate, depending on whether the electricity is used during peak or off-peak periods. And the final phase was to be full two-way communication between consumer and utility.

Intent to finish

Fieseler predicted that the interruption caused by the city’s need to terminate the contract would delay implementation of the fully interactive feature until at least the end of 2015.

“We’ve got to get somebody new, and we can’t confine them to working with (what was built by) Calico,” he said.

There is no immediate rush to get the portal, one of the final pieces of the smart grid system, online. Other aspects of the project are moving ahead independently.

“We continue to be committed to the Smart Grid Initiative,” Ely said. “The fact that the vendor did not perform as expected does not diminish our intent to finish the project.”

Officials will be proceeding with caution as they review the available vendors.

“The Obamacare website was the best thing to happen to Naperville,” Fieseler said. “It really sensitized us to getting it right.”

The three phases of the ePortal’s implementation now could end up being done by three separate contractors.

“The landscape has really changed since 2010,” LaCloche said. “I think this is going to give us an opportunity to see what else is out there now, and what our options look like.”

The outcome could find the city holding the license to its system software “that we could potentially get some return for” by sharing it with other municipalities, said Fieseler, who likened the present situation to a tennis game.

“When you realize that you’re playing with an inept opponent on the other side of the net,” he said, “you understand you need to find someone else so you can finish your game.”