Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Electric Slide

MGLW plans to put Smart Grid meters in 1,000 homes as part of a demonstration project.

Posted By on Wed, May 12, 2010 at 4:25 PM

Cooper-Young resident Chad Ahren says he's always thinking about the little things he can do for the environment. He recycles, uses canvas bags at the grocery store, and recently volunteered for a new smart meter from MLGW.

"If the city can encourage people to use power at certain times, I'm all for that," Ahren says. "As a family, we can learn what the best times are to use energy and save some money, but that's just a bonus for me."

As part of a three-year demonstration project, MLGW plans to choose 1,000 volunteer residential customers for new smart meters. With the meters, MLGW will be able to evaluate the utility's peak hours for energy consumption and then offer customers discounts for off-peak usage.

"This provides customers with the opportunity to adjust their energy usage instead of getting a bill that tells you how you did the previous month," says Glen Thomas, supervisor of communications and public relations at MLGW. "What you do with that information is up to you."

But MLGW is hoping that the million-dollar demonstration program will show that customers with smart meters reduce their energy usage. Implementing smart meters countywide would cost roughly $175 million, but MLGW estimates it will save between $15 million and $115 million annually and reduce energy consumption by 2 to 15 percent.

Currently, local electricity usage is 36 percent higher than the national average, a statistic MLGW would like to see change.

"There's quite a bit of room for improvement," says Rick Bowker, manager of information services at MLGW and the head of the Smart Grid project. "A lot of homes here were built in the '40s and '50s, and they're not very energy-efficient."

Volunteers with the program will be able to track their energy usage on MLGW's website, but some households will also receive in-home displays that show up-to-the-minute energy-use data.

"Right now, we read the meter once a month," Bowker says. "We cannot provide you 15-minute-interval data. We don't have the capability.

"You have a 30-year-old freezer your grandmother gave you, but you don't know how much the freezer is taking in utilities. With the Smart Grid technology, you will know how much energy it's taking you to run it and you can see if you ought to replace it with a newer one that's more energy-efficient and save money in the long run," Bowker says.

In addition to cost savings for the consumer, MLGW hopes to save money system-wide through reduced personnel costs.

The utility has also touted the new system's advantages in safety, security, and customer service. Customers with smart meters won't need to keep gates unlocked for meter readers or rely on estimated bills if meters are inaccessible.

Powered by a backup battery, the meters will also let MLGW know immediately when a customer's power is out. The utility currently depends on customer calls to determine outages.

"We don't know a transformer is out until customers call," Bowker says.

Right now, about 10,000 meters are stolen each year and hooked up illegally. Because the smart meters function much like a cell phone and have a GPS, MLGW staff say that as soon as smart meters are turned back on, they will be able to find them.

Though the demonstration project is ostensibly to see if smart meters are a worthwhile endeavor, Bowker says all the utility companies he's talked with deem the meters a success. According to current estimates, smart meters will be in at least 60 million households — almost half of all U.S. households — by 2020.

"It's like going from a landline to a cell phone. Would you want to go back to a landline? Would you want to go back to a car without an onboard computer?" Bowker asks.

Customers can volunteer for the program at https://service.mlgw.org/smartgrid/ until May 14th. MLGW says it has yet to determine selection criteria, but volunteers can live anywhere in Shelby County as long as they have adequate cellular coverage. Volunteers should have also lived in their residence for at least three years, but they don't have to own their own home.

"I've never lived in a place that has done this. It's progressive. I want to be a part of it," Ahren says of his reason for volunteering. "Anytime I have the chance to support the city in making a future-leaning decision with a municipal service, I will."

For more on this and other topics, visit Mary Cashiola's "In the Bluff" blog at memphisflyer.com/blogs/InTheBluff.

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