MLGW plans 'Smart Grid' to automate meters - WMC Action News 5 - Memphis, Tennessee

MLGW plans 'Smart Grid' to automate meters

By Andy Wise - bio | email | Twitter | Facebook

MEMPHIS (WMC TV) - Memphis Light Gas & Water will fully automate customers' meters in six zip codes if it secures $20 million in federal stimulus money from the U.S. Department of Energy.

"It's really a 21st century upgrade to the way we handle metering," said MLGW's Assistant Manager of Energy Resources Laura Campbell.

As part of an ambitious plan named Smart Grid, the utility would automate the meters of 75,000 of its 300,000 customers in the zip codes Campbell said have the highest power consumption:  38104, 38106, 38108, 38111, 38114 and 38122.

"They would be able to know how much their bill is going to be before they get their bill," said Campbell.  "We're transforming our customers into informed consumers."

According to Campbell, half of the $20 million request would go to enhancements in the utility's power distribution.  Those enhancements would enable a faster response to power outages as well as the automatic notification of the utility when a single home's power is lost.

The other $10 million would be dedicated to Smart Grid metering enhancements, including:

* MLGW customers would be allowed to enroll in a "pre-paid metering" plan that would let them set an average monthly payment.

* MLGW would be able to read a customer's electrical meter at any time by computer.

* The automatic metering would eliminate MLGW's practice of "estimating" bills on hard-to-read meters

Carla Ford of zip code 38122 likes the idea.  According to MLGW records, her meter-reader underestimated her meter for eight straight months:  Oct. 2008 to May 2009. 

Now she's being assessed an additional $75 a month until that amount is paid.

"I (would be) very happy if the automated system would cut out these 'estimation' bills," Ford said.

But the program's in jeopardy before it even gets started.

MLGW is in what's called Phase 2 of the U.S. Department of Energy's application process for Smart Grid funds.  Campbell said a proposed Phase 3 has already been canceled.

"The department...has said that they're still determining whether they're going to move forward with Phase 2 or not," she said. 

Another obstacle is the local electrical workers union.  IBEW Local 1288 Assistant Business Manager Bill Hawkins said Smart Grid will cost some of MLGW's 92 meter-readers their jobs.

Hawkins also said since the plan would be launched in only six zip codes, MLGW customers in the other zip codes will end up subsidizing Smart Grid's cost.

"It's not Smart Grid.  It's Dumb Grid," he said.  "It's going to double your rates. It's going to be unfair to the working people of this community."

Campbell said MLGW President Jerry Collins has pledged that if the federal funds are secured, no meter-readers would lose their jobs to Smart Grid.  They would either continue to read meters for gas and water, or they would be deployed to other assignments.

Campbell said the utility should have its answer on the funding by Dec. 15.

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