In today's Commercial Appeal...
Smart grid program seeks to cut utility costs, power usage
Before David Saks ramps up his electric guitar amplifier, he checks his in-home display monitor. He may limit a three-hour solo jam session if he knows it's going to run up his monthly utility bill.
Saks is one of 975 homeowners who are a part of Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division's pilot program where homeowners have swapped their old electric meters at no cost for new smart grid meters. The grid meters measure a customer's electrical consumption every 15 minutes and give customers the information either through the Internet or with a display monitor.
In addition, Saks is among half of the participants who have a four-inch square mobile monitor that lets him know what his projected monthly power bill will be and whether any appliance, like a clothes dryer or the air conditioning, is driving up his costs. Saks watches his kilowatt hour usage.
"If it's in the double digits, I'm not going to practice," he said.
Under the pilot, some residents like Saks are still under the flat electrical rates that everyone pays. About 120 users volunteered for a time-of-use rate that fluctuates based on peak and non-peak usage.
"One of the things I've hated is the flat rate fee," said Chris Morton, a medical researcher. "It costs more to make power during the peak times of the day. Now I actually pay for the power I use."
Morton, who is married to a nurse and lives in Midtown, also likes not having to unlock his backyard gate and put the dogs up for a meter reader to come in.
Having that digital reminder is having an impact at the East Memphis home of Pam and Keith Scarbrough.
"It changes the way we think about using electricity," she said.
Now, they set the timer and run their dishwasher at 1 a.m. They wash clothes during non-peak times. With two teenaged girls at home, she said, "It's become more second nature to them to turn off the computer or lights."
A year ago, Pam Scarbrough, a teacher's assistant, said the family was spending $3.60 a day for electricity. Now, they're spending $2.68 a day. That adds up to $335 savings in a year.
Other than homeowners in the pilot program, none of the remaining 359,000 residential utility customers are being charged time-of-use rates now. After the pilot program wraps up by the end of the year, utility officials will analyze the data to see if any customers have changed their power usage habits.
MLGW president Jerry Collins said, "Hopefully, the study will show that it will save customers money on top of the operational savings." Because MLGW is a city-run utility, Collins said, any money saved helps the local economy.
"A few customers are fearful that a smart meter poses a health risk. That was the same fear voiced 100 years ago when the incandescent light bulb was introduced," Collins said. "There is no health risk." A smart meter uses the same technology that cellphones use.
Not everyone is sold on the smart grid concept.
Bill Hawkins of the IBEW labor union has criticized the concept, saying the system would be open to electronic hacking and customers would pay more under time-of-use metering.
Several homeowners and neighborhood groups in California have filed complaints about defective smart meters over-billing them and about the installation costs of the new meters. In part because of the complaints, the California Public Utilities Commission approved a smart meter opt-out program earlier this year.
"We think the utility companies jumped the gun. They were putting them in over customer objections. There were problems with the communication devises, inadequate customer education and poor customer service. The spin was this will save energy. It hasn't happened yet," said Mindy Spatt, a spokesman for The Utility Reform Network, a consumer advocacy group in San Francisco.
-- Lela Garlington: (901) 529-2349