Smarting, Part 3

If smart meters are installed throughout Memphis, be prepared to pay more for your utility bill. A lot more. Double or triple is the estimate Yvonne Burton told the audience at Thursday’s townhall on smart meters at the main library.

“MLGW places the cost of smart meters in Shelby County at $215 million,” Burton said. The Memphis activist pointed to the example of Chattanooga, which has 100% smart meter compliance. “The cost there was estimated to be $226 million. They have 170,000 customers. But what they need in Chattanooga now is $552 million. When you think that MLGW has more than a million customers, you can see that $215 million won’t cover it. With government, it’s always quadruple the cost.”

Burton does not see how smart meters will help us use less energy. “Unless you can do something about the sun, smart meters will not do anything,” she said. “MLGW wants $10 million from the City Council for 60,000 more. The pilot program’s 1,200 didn’t include water and gas and were made by a different company than the 60,000 will be. The new ones will not even have the in home monitors. To see savings you have to have time of use rates. The average saving with time of use is $6.89 a month.” She went on to ask if that is enough to make such a big, expensive switch, especially since the company doesn’t see their return on investment materializing for 23 years.

No wonder, then, “there’s a fight over this going on in every state,” she said.

Besides the financial outlay, there is the security issue. Burton cited former CIA chief James Woolsey. He said, “What they’re doing now, they’re constructing what they call a Smart Grid. And they’re going to make it easier for you and me to call our homes on our cell phone and turn down our air-conditioning on a hot afternoon if we’re not there. Great, but that may well mean that a hacker in Shanghai with his cell phone could do the same thing or worse. And a so-called ‘Smart Grid’ that is as vulnerable as what we’ve got is not smart at all, it’s a really, really stupid grid.”

Burton said “just a moderately knowledgeable hacker can hit one.” This opens another side of the problem: the criminal element. “In some areas people have been paid off to reprogram meters for a smaller bill.”

“We’re not ready for this technology,” she said.

If anyone was not persuaded by now, the experience of a man from Corinth, Mississippi, dispelled doubts.

“Smart meters ain’t smart,” the man said. The audience laughed. “When I heard y’all were having this meeting about smart meters I had to drive here to tell you about them,” he said. He had contacted Council member Janis Fullilove about his desire to tell his story and she had approved him as an impromptu guest.

He explained that he has had smart meters on his rental properties for three years. “I had no choice,” he said. “They were put on without my knowledge. When I got the first bill on a house that had not been occupied it amounted to $1928 for two months’ light bill.” The Corinth resident went on to explain in a spell binding folksy way the audience loved that he found out that different companies had made different smart meters for his local electric company. “I found out that some of them didn’t work the way they were supposed to. When it gets to be triple digit temperatures they can give false readings.”

His discoveries led him to several different states and several different meter companies. To put it mildly, he was not happy with what he found out.

At this point Ms. Fullilove introduced a young man wearing a T shirt with Orange Mound on it. His story was that two days after MLGW installed a new meter on his house, it burned down. “I was in it, too, asleep,” he said. There was some discrepancy whether it was a smart or digital meter, but his story caused an uproar in the audience. In the question and answer period to follow, he continued to dwell on the loss of his house and MLGW’s responsibility.

Next: Questions, but few answers.

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