Tuesday, August 20, 2013

CA Guest column: Time to get smart about utility monitors

By Jerry R. Collins Jr., Special to The Commercial Appeal
Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Memphis City Council is scheduled to vote Tuesday on a resolution to authorize Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division’s budget expenditure of $10.1 million to purchase 60,000 smart meters.
It was the City Council’s support that enabled our successful Smart Meter Demonstration Pilot to move forward with 1,000 volunteers.

Last year, as we completed that pilot project, the council approved MLGW’s 2013 budget, which included a City Council-recommended boost to smart meter expansion that Tuesday’s resolution would facilitate. Two weeks ago, the council’s MLGW Committee, chaired by Councilwoman Janis Fullilove, gave its conditional approval of the purchase.

We trust the City Council will continue its support for progress.

Upon approval, the 60,000 smart meters — electric, gas and water meters — will be ordered, manufactured and delivered to MLGW, to begin installation on 24,000 selected homes (about 80 percent in Memphis and 20 percent in other parts of Shelby County) at the end of the year. We expect to have all 60,000 meters installed by mid-2014.

Smart meters are simply digital meters that can communicate remotely with MLGW, opening up an array of choices for customers and the utility. Ninety-five percent of Smart Grid Demonstration participants would recommend smart meters to a friend. A recent J.D. Power and Associates survey showed that 74 percent of customers polled want a smart meter — a 25 percent increase from 2012.

That enthusiasm will continue to rise as MLGW seeks to standardize smart meters for our 1-million-plus meter system by 2020. Customers, though, have the choice of opting out; so far, only 0.5 percent of the 24,000 selected homes have.

People understand the future. By 2015, more than 65 million smart meters are expected to be installed in the United States. Olive Branch, Miss., has 100 percent automated meters. In Tennessee, Gibson, Obion, Lake, Dyer, Lauderdale, Crockett, Haywood and Madison counties, served by Gibson Electric Membership Corp., have 100 percent smart meters. Bolivar has 100 percent smart meters. Chattanooga has 99 percent smart meters.

For MLGW, the documented goal of the MLGW Smart Meter Demonstration was twofold: a) begin informing and motivating customers to better control electricity usage, and b) gain sufficient results and participant feedback to develop a business case for the future deployment of smart grid solutions throughout its entire service territory. The project met all objectives and was very successful.

The best example of smart meter success is our customers. These customers experienced none of the fear issues that concern opponents and, again, 95 percent would recommend smart meters to a friend. (Not to mention, the pilot project was budgeted for $1 million and actually cost $380,000.)

Despite this evidence, opponents of smart meters depend on fear and outright lies about hackers from China and unsubstantiated tales about meter fires. The truth is multiple security measures are used to protect the encrypted data, which is simply meter readings and a meter number. The truth is Elster electric smart meters are made in Raleigh, N.C., and their water and gas meters are made down the road in Corinth, Miss. The truth is that meters — regardless of the type — do not cause fires.

The truth is MLGW’s 420,000-plus customers will save as operation and maintenance costs are reduced $21 million each year upon full implementation of smart meters and more than $20 million additional savings could be realized through smart meter-related energy conservation, optional time-of-use rates and prepay annually.

The prepay option — the ability to pay for utilities in advance like a prepaid mobile phone or like filling up a gas tank — could save economically disadvantaged customers money in reduced utility costs such as the elimination of a security deposit. Like a car’s gas gauge, an MLGW notification would alert customers when their balances are low and then they could pay whatever amount they want for more service.

Smart meters give customers unprecedented control.

No more end-of-the-month bill surprises. Customers will be able to see the bill as it accrues and make their own adjustments to manage it.

No estimated bills. Keep gates locked and pets outside. Greatly reduced utility theft. Lower fees. Faster service. Shorter outages. Safe and secure.

This is the opportunity knocking on Tuesday.

We trust the City Council will open the door to progress — again.

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