At the last couple of town hall meetings about MLGW's new "smart meters," tempers have flared, words have been exchanged, and at one meeting, city councilman Myron Lowery was threatened with a fist to the face.
MLGW plans to install 60,000 smart meters, which identify energy consumption in a more detailed manner than conventional meters, during the first phase of its project this fall. The utility will install the meters in all Memphis and Shelby County residences and businesses by 2020.
Some council members and customers oppose smart meters due to fear of increases in utility bills, health hazards from radiation, and concerns over hacking. At one meeting in June, a man threatened to punch Lowery when the councilman got into a heated debate with the man's wife over the meters. Councilman Joe Brown even likened the meters to communism.
"I don't know what in the world communism would have to do with them. That's very silly," said MLGW president Jerry Collins. "If you have a computer at home, if you have a telephone, if you have wi-fi, there's a greater chance that you're going to be hacked than if you have a smart meter. That smart meter has encrypted computer chips in it that make it very difficult to hack."
Councilwoman Janis Fullilove has been spearheading the town hall meetings.
"There's so much controversy surrounding these meters, whether or not they actually lower the cost of your utility bill. I've heard from many people who have these smart meters, that their utility cost is going up," Fullilove said.
MLGW claims smart meters will actually help customers lower their bills. The meters measure a location's energy consumption every 15 minutes. Customers will be able to access this information online or by contacting MLGW's call center.
"It gives a homeowner more information than they've ever had about their energy use," Collins said. "By having that information, they can make decisions on how to better use their energy for the purposes of saving money."
The council will vote August 6th on the approval of a $10 million contract for MLGW to install smart meters throughout the remainder of the year and into 2014.
For the first phase of installation, MLGW is targeting parts of Midtown, downtown, Germantown, Bartlett, and Collierville. Residences and businesses in these areas can opt out of having them installed. However, if a customer in one of the targeted areas has committed utility theft within the last 24 months, they'll be required to get a smart meter.
There are 11,000 cases of utility theft in Memphis each year. Smart meters would help eliminate this issue, because if anyone tampers with one, MLGW is automatically notified and a representative is sent to that location.
Although some opponents of smart meters have focused on utility costs and privacy issues, many are concerned over the elimination of jobs as a result of smart meter installation. Over the next seven years, around 170 MLGW positions would be eliminated.
"No one would be laid off. We would simply eliminate vacancies as they occur," Collins said. "That reduces the cost of our operations, and keeping utilities as low as possible is certainly a major responsibility that we have."
From 2010 to 2012, 1,000 MLGW customers participated in the Smart Grid Demonstration Project, which involved those customers testing out electric smart meters. Only 5 percent of participants said they wouldn't recommend the smart meters to their friends.
"There really shouldn't be any controversy," Collins said. "There are many other parts of the country that have already implemented smart meters and are taking advantage of all the benefits. We need to get out of the Stone Age and start taking advantage of those benefits as well."