MLGW ushers in efficiency with smart meters

With the a nod of approval from the City Council in December, Memphis' utility meters are about to get smarter. Memphis Light Gas & Water will begin installing advanced meters across its service territory with the goal of having every resident wired with automated readers by 2020. The results are expected to be savings for the utility's operations, plus savings for customers who can watch their usage in real time. 
Connectivity is today’s buzz word as technological advances have created an abundance of ways the world is better understood.

And as consumers pay bills online, deposit checks via mobile photos and purchase every good imaginable without leaving home, having the ability to track utilities usage online is an obvious next step.

And it’s a step that Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division consumers will begin having greater access to with the growth of the Smart Meters program.

MLGW has proposed and its board approved in May a full-scale deployment of smart meters across its service territory. The Memphis City Council must approve any expenditures of $50,000 or greater, meaning it had to approve the proposed $240 million contract with Elster Solutions, the vendor that was selected through a request for proposals earlier this year.

At a meeting in early December the council approved the contract, which is funded by MLGW revenue and savings, not from the city budget. The next step is installation of the entire telecommunications network in 2016, as well as beginning meter installations early this year.

Christopher Bieber, Vice President of Customer Care for MLGW, said installation of the Wi-Fi technology countywide will take as much as 18 months.

“We intend to have all smart meters installed by 2020,” he said. “We’ll do blanket replacements in parallel.”

Bieber said customers will receive a letter 30 days before replacement. Anyone who doesn’t want one installed can opt out at no cost.

Smart meters measure consumption, whether it is electricity, natural gas or water. What makes the meters different from other meters is how they communicate with the utility. The one-way meters are called advanced meters or automated meter reading and have fewer features than the two-way communicating smart meters.

Homeowners with smart meters will no longer have their meter read for a bill to be calculated. Smart meters send the reading to MLGW automatically daily.

There has been opposition to smart readers because of the elimination of an estimated 280 jobs, but no layoffs will occur, Bieber said.

“It’s position reduction not layoffs,” he said. “We have no intention of laying off anyone. It’s an area with extremely high turnover. Those will be operational savings.”

Before smart meter technology, utilities used meters that had to be read, first with analog or five-dial meters. In the late 1990s and early 2000s the technology allowed for automated metering, and began drifting toward today’s smart readers.
MLGW’s move toward the technology came in 2005 and 2006 when there was a plan to convert everything to automated meters. The utility’s board never approved the proposal. Then in 2009 and 2010 MLGW sought volunteers to use 1,000 smart meters the utility purchased.

Some 1,800 volunteers came forward with meters distributed evenly throughout Shelby County with all ZIP codes represented.

Fast forward to 2012 and 2013 when MLGW sought City Council approval for 6,000 smart meters. Ultimately, the council approved 60,000 with 25,000 for electric, 22,000 for gas and the remainder for water. Those meters were installed in 2014 at about 24,000 homes in geographic clusters across the county.

“They’ve worked remarkably well,” Bieber said.

Smart meters communicate to the utility through secure, programmed commands. The meters send daily readings that can report power outages or water leaks, confirm power restoration and enable MLGW to connect and disconnect electric service remotely.

The smart meter system uses a secure radio mesh network to collect data from the meters and deliver it to MLGW’s meter data management system.

MLGW can use smart meters to know where and when a power outage has occurred.

Customers are able to log in to My Account at mlgw.com and view their smart meter data that is updated daily, as well as see utility-cost-to-date and projected costs based on cumulative usage. Access to more detailed data throughout the billing period is meant to increase customer awareness while showing ways to make changes to avoid higher bills, said Becky Williamson, Strategic Marketing Coordinator for MLGW.

Bill Graves is a Harbor Town resident who was part of the initial demonstration project with an electric smart meter and the optional Time-of-Use rate. He has had a smart meter for three years and said he couldn’t imagine going back to the previous system.

“We originally had an analog meter,” he said. “That’s worthless. There is nothing you can learn from it. Now I can go online and run my usage and see how much usage, what time of day. I can tell when someone is home during the day.”

Graves said he often looks back at his utility usage to learn how he can cut costs, and he estimates his savings has been 7 to 10 percent.

Graves said the immediacy of the information is helpful. In fact, in less than 30 seconds he was able to log in and learn what his current bill would be.

“I’m 14 days into my cycle and I’ve spent $43,” he said. “That’s not bad. The only thing I want to do about it is put everything else on the system. It can compare your home to other homes in the community and make suggestions about how you can make savings. This is truly a no-brainer. I’d love to see it in every home that wants one.”

Some misconceptions exist about smart meters, Bieber said. Smart meters in fact do not control individual usage and they don’t allow MLGW to control thermostat settings inside a customer’s home or business.

Some believe the meters will catch fire.

“That’s hogwash,” Bieber said. “The back of a meter is like an electrical plug like you would plug into a wall with pins in there. You have to have good solid contact between pins and what the pins fit into the inside of a meter socket or else they heat up. That’s what causes fires if you don’t have solid contact. If meters have been sitting there and never moved then contact is good.”

But if it has been popped in and out numerous times the socket could be loose, meaning contact isn’t great. So MLGW will inspect and repair every socket where they install a meter.

“Normally the socket belongs to the customer and they would have to pay for that, but since we’re doing this we’ll pay for any replacement so the customer won’t have that burden,” Bieber said. “In other utilities where they’ve done this they’ve had no issues with fires.”

Other reasons for opposition include invasion of privacy. But the only information that will be known is the measured usage, not if it was a refrigerator or oven. There are barriers to hacking.

Graves gave an example of how the meter actually is more secure for some users.

“One of my neighbors is very security conscious,” he said. “She moved from a small town into Memphis and was concerned about crime. She wouldn’t let someone open her gate to check the meters so she’s having her utility averaged. I told her to get a smart meter.”

The Edison Foundation Institute for Electric Innovation reported in 2014 that more than 50 million smart meters were installed in the U.S., covering more than 43 percent of homes nationwide. However, in the Memphis market, just 6 percent of MLGW’s meters are of the smart variety.

Bieber said he believes once Memphians begin using smart meters and realizing the savings available they will be glad to have the service.

“There is savings simply because we’ll have more knowledge about our system and be able to operate it better and reduce losses,” he said. “We buy 100 kilowatts from (Tennessee Valley Authority) and only use 97. We can reduce those losses by understanding the system better. If you’re a new customer and say we want a connection. Well, we run a truck out to do that. With this we won’t have to do that anymore. You call us and we can turn you on from the other side of the phone.”

Read more articles by Lance Wiedower.

Lance is a veteran journalist with more than 16 years of experience in newsrooms in the Memphis area as a reporter and editor, including most recently as managing editor of The Daily News. He regularly contributes to The Daily News, including a biweekly travel column, The Daily Traveler. 
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