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VOL. 132 | NO. 201 | Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Collins Says Smart Grid Era Will Improve MLGW Service

By Bill Dries

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At Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division, storms causing power outages that affect more than 30,000 homes and businesses are considered major storms.

There were five major storms by that standard in 2011, making it the worst on record for the utility. So far in 2017 there have been four major storms.

“We’ll have switches that are automated and smart that can isolate an outage to a smaller area.”

–Jerry Collins
President and CEO,
Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division

“And I hope we get to the end of the year without having another,” said Jerry Collins, MLGW president and CEO, on the WKNO/Channel 10 program “Behind The Headlines.” “Our philosophy on outage restoration is spare no expense get the power restored as quickly as possible.”

In the six years since 2011, Collins said the strategy has evolved along with technology.

“Now we have an outage map. Now we have an app that we initiated in the spring of 2011 when we were having all of those storms. You can look at the outage map on your phone,” he said. “And we have a really smart system in terms of when you call us, how it classified your outage as a fuse outage or a circuit outage etc. It does a marvelous job of doing that very quickly so we can prioritize our restoration efforts.”

In the wake of the Memorial Day weekend power outages – called the “Tom Lee Storm” for toppling his statue Downtown – that knocked out power to 188,000 customers, some Memphis City Council members said the online map wasn’t specific enough and the council has since created an advisory group to offer input on future utility responses.

“Behind The Headlines,” hosted by Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News, can be seen on The Daily News Video page, video.memphisdailynews.com.

“Memphis is a city of trees and the vast majority of the power outages we have in storms is caused by trees,” Collins said. “When you have an 80-foot-tall oak tree falling on a 40-foot-tall power line or pole, that’s not an infrastructure problem. That’s a tree problem. And our trees are getting bigger.”

Detecting separate, smaller outages that may not be resolved when the larger power outage is fixed is a limitation that the utility’s move to a “smart grid” would remedy.

“Currently, we don’t know that unless those people call us back and tell us,” Collins said. “We’ll have switches that are automated and smart that can isolate an outage to a smaller area.”

A major part of the smart grid move is the roll out of “Smart Meters” that will continue past Collins’ Dec. 19 retirement date after 10 years at the helm of MLGW.

At $240 million, the Smart Meter project is the largest in MLGW’s 80-year history.

The electrical residential meters should be fully deployed by the end of October. The utility will begin installing gas and water Smart Meters next year.

Some council members have suggested exploring underground utilities to eliminate overhead wires and poles that trees can take down. MLGW estimates a city-wide conversion like that would take 50 years and cost $3.6 billion. Council members are discussing a push for a strategic move to underground service in areas where trees make power outages chronic.

Meanwhile, Collins believes it is still possible the Tennessee Valley Authority will choose to buy water for its new Allen gas-fired power plant in southwest Memphis from MLGW instead of relying on water wells it has drilled into the Memphis water aquifer already.

“We think their best course of action in this case is to buy the water directly from MLGW rather than to pump directly out of the aquifer,” he said. “But I think TVA wants to do the right thing and will make the right decision ultimately.”

Collins said the utility will be watching when TVA turns on the new wells. Testing since TVA drilled its own wells revealed high arsenic and lead levels found in groundwater around coal ash ponds at the existing Allen coal-fired power plant, which is being replaced by the new natural-gas plant nearby under construction.

MLGW and state regulators and the TVA will be watching to see if the new wells draw the contaminants toward the aquifer.

“Don’t let any of this arsenic stuff scare you,” Collins added. “It’s not getting into the drinking water.”

He also said a more efficient use of water locally means less water is being used.

“As a result of that, the hydrostatic pressure of that aquifer is actually rising, which means our aquifer is becoming more healthy, and that’s a really unique position for us to be in,” he said.

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