MLGW update on smart meters, programs

Memphis Light, Gas and Water is currently installing about 2,500 new smart meters daily, with some days peaking around 4,000 meters. From the end of May 2016 to the end of February this year, MLGW’s contractor, Apex, had installed approximately 265,500 meters.

All residential smart meters for electricity in MLGW’s service area are expected to be installed by the end of 2017.

MLGW gave updates on its smart meter rollout, as well as supplier diversity and the Share the Pennies program, at its quarterly media event in Memphis on March 2.

MLGW has dismissed as false the common rumors that smart meters somehow spy on homes or are fire risks. The company also allows customers to opt out of smart meter installation if they so choose.

Chris Bieber, vice president for customer service, said the current opt-out rate is about 2.6 percent.

When a home is chosen for a smart meter installation, the customer should receive a postcard at least 30 days in advance. A phone call reminder should come two days in advance. The day of the installation, the installers are supposed to knock and let residents know they are there to install the smart meters.

Some Mid-Southerners in Bartlett and other areas have complained that they didn’t receive any notifications, not even a knock on the door when they were home on installation day. Bieber said he’s sure that some mistakes have been made, but Apex has been remarkably responsive to reported issues.

These customers also have a remedy: Bieber said that MLGW will swap them back to a more traditional meter at their request, and there is no cost to the customer for this.

Gas smart meter installations are more complicated than the electrical meters and take a little longer. MLGW has installed about 33,659 gas meters. About 40,000 water meters have also been installed.

The total project is budgeted at $240 million, and MLGW expects to finish on schedule and under budget with complete rollout by 2020.

MLGW does not expect to lay off any employees even though the smart meter program will eliminate about 280 jobs for meter readers, Bieber said. Some people leave the company each year as part of normal job attrition, and MLGW is re-deploying the remaining displaced employees to other positions in the company.

MLGW’s handouts about smart meters noted that the meters can be deactivated and reactivated remotely, cutting costs in half in most cases for connections and for reconnecting service after nonpayment issues. Customers no longer have to remember to unlock gates or restrain pets on meter reading days because these meters are read remotely. Bills are also no longer estimated for those who use smart meters; people will be billed for the exact amounts they use.

In an introductory speech, MLGW CEO Jerry Collins noted that the company has the lowest combined rates of any utility in a major city in the U.S.

MLGW’s water usage

Collins also gave an update on MLGW’s impact on the local water supply. The utility sold less water last year than it did in any year going back as far as 1978, he said. Federal regulations have made home equipment more efficient, and usage has declined about 2 percent annually.

Today, MLGW pumps about 30 million gallons (about 20 percent) less out of the Memphis Sand aquifer each day than it did in 2000. Collins explained that there is a clay layer between the surface and the water-soaked sand aquifer. When a pipe is drilled into the aquifer, water rises in the pipe up into the clay level, a process called hydrostatic pressure. It’s a sign of a healthy aquifer when that level rises each year. It’s been rising steadily.

“Memphis is in a very enviable position from the standpoint of both water quality and quantity,” Collins said. “And when I talk to other utility managers across the country – even across the state of Tennessee – some of them don’t know where they’re going to get water for their city tomorrow. They’re in such crisis. And their sources of water are so limited.”

He continued, “We tell people with great confidence that our water is the best quality drinking water in the country. And on top of that, there’s plenty of it.”

However, the approval in late 2016 for the Tennessee Valley Authority to pull 3.5 million gallons of water daily from the aquifer raised concerns about the aquifer’s future health. Collins said new local regulations will be drafted in cooperation with the Shelby County Health Department to give power to properly govern how water is taken out of the aquifer. He said there is also legislation in the works about future governance of the aquifer in Shelby County and outlying counties. (See House Bill 0816 and Senate Bill 0776, which would create the Memphis sand aquifer regional management board.)

He said he would like for that new aquifer board to ensure that wells can’t be drilled when water is available from MLGW.

Supplier diversity

MLGW improved its supplier diversity spending for 2016 compared to the previous year, according to Renise Holliday, supplier diversity coordinator. In 2015, MLGW spent more than $47.4 million with minority-owned enterprises, women-owned enterprises, or locally owned small businesses, or 37 percent of $127 million.

In 2016, that number jumped to more than $76.4 million (33 percent of $234 million).

MLGW also provided statistics on its 2016 spending with Shelby County businesses: The amount is $75.4 million, or 32.1 percent of $234 million. (See the accompanying pie chart for a breakdown.)

Amounts spent by area include:

  • Memphis, $61 million
  • Millington, $4.6 million
  • Collierville, $3.5 million
  • Germantown, $2.5 million
  • Bartlett, $2.4 million
  • Eads, $721,000
  • Cordova, $259,000
  • Arlington, $97,000

Share the Pennies

MLGW also has a voluntary Share the Pennies program that lets customers round up their bills and automatically donate to the needy’s utility costs. Currently, only about 2 percent of MLGW customers participate because it’s an opt-in program. As of Jan. 1, 2018, MLGW will change the program to an opt-out program. There will be a six-month education campaign beforehand to explain the change to customers.

Literature from MLGW notes that the most any customer could give through rounding up in a year is $11.88 total, and most customers give much less. Most give about 50 cents per month.

Collins told about two scenario where funds from the Share the Pennies program were used to help people in financial need. The first was an elderly customer with mental issues who lived alone. She had a $300 per month water bill, and the cost strained even the churches that were trying to help her.

At first, it seemed obvious that there was an unseen leak in the water line on her property. It’s not uncommon, and it can be beyond the ability of some customers to pay for a $1,500 line repair. In this case, the problem was that her toilet was running wide open 24 hours a day, causing the extreme water usage. She needed a repair that cost about 100.

Last week, Collins heard about a customer who got a big heating bill in January. The man’s HVAC system doesn’t work, and an on-site evaluation of his home revealed that he was using inefficient space heaters and his stove to keep warm. It will cost several thousand dollars the man doesn’t have in order to get his central heating and air conditioning system back up and running. That’s another case where Share the Pennies helps.

“In a lot of ways, MLGW is a social services agency, because in many occasions we know when somebody is having financial difficulty before anybody else knows, because their utility bill doesn’t get paid,” he said.

MLGW will continue operating its Plus 1 program that allows customers to donate $1 or more per month as well. Plus 1 is for one-time needs in paying the utility bill, while Share the Pennies is for long-term systemic problems that keep recurring month after month.

Written by Carolyn Bahm, Express editor. Contact her at (901) 433-9138, or