February 21, 2022 6:00am

Power Poll: MLGW, TVA and Memphis power struggles

Feb. 3 ice storm raises questions, concerns about local utility's flaws and fate

Photo of David Waters
Memphis, TN Correspondent

The Feb. 3 ice storm that dazzled and dazed the Memphis area knocked out power to about 55 percent of MLGW's customers. Schools were closed for three days. Power wasn't fully restored for 12 days.

It was the fourth worst storm in the utility's history, said J.T. Young, CEO of Memphis Light, Gas & Water. He estimated utility damages of $14 million.

By comparison, the ice storm of February 1994 caused $31.5 million in damages and power wasn't fully restored for 14 days. "Hurricane Elvis" of July 2003 cut power for 14 days with $14.5 million in damages. The "Tom Lee Storm" of May 2017 cut power for 11 days with $15 million in damages.

“To the extent we did not live up to our mission, I apologize,” Young told City Council this week. "I know that we can do better and we will."

But a February survey of Power Poll members showed 54 percent believe MLGW did the best it could. Another 32 percent believe the local utility could have done better. Only 13 percent think MLGW failed.

Meanwhile, Power Poll members are less sure about MLGW's long-range forecast.

MLGW is considering leaving the TVA system and finding other, less expensive and greener sources of electricity. Those in favor say the move would save MLGW customers hundreds of millions of dollars. But critics say the move is too risky and the city needs TVA's historic reliability. A decision could be made by summer.

Power Poll members are evenly divided on the matter: 22 percent think MLGW should leave TVA, and 22 percent think MLGW should stay. Another 16 percent think the city should sell MLGW and get out of the public utility business altogether.

Interestingly, 28 percent think TVA should lower its rates for MLGW, by far its largest customer. Unfortunately, TVA is prohibited from lowering its rates here unless it does the same for all 153 of its local power companies.

Power Poll members are more in agreement about recent news that Carlee McCullough, one of five MLGW commissioners, failed to disclose a conflict of interest.

Last week, the Institute for Pubic Service Reporting at the University of Memphis reported that McCullough operates a local restaurant with the wife of TVA regional vice president Mark Yates.

Thirty-seven percent of members said it's a clear conflict of interest and McCullough should recuse herself on all votes related to TVA.

Another 18 percent agreed that it was a "brazen move" by TVA to influence MLGW. But 11 percent see it as a "smart move" by TVA, and another 22 percent think the connection is purely coincidental.

The three-year terms of all five members of MLGW’s governing board are long expired, and four of the five ended nearly three years ago, the Institute also reported. McCullough's term expired in October 2019.

Mayor Jim Strickland’s office said he made a decision not to appoint or reappoint anyone to the board until officials closed the bidding process for seeking power suppliers that might replace TVA.

Earlier this week, Young and Strickland announced the formation of a citizens committee to come up with ways to avoid massive power outages in the future.

Last week, Strickland suggested that the city could sell MLGW and use the proceeds to bury all power lines underground.

Sixteen percent of Power Poll members think that's a good idea. Such a sale would have to be approved in a citywide referendum.

“I want to be perfectly clear — I’m not advocating for this yet, but it’s something we as a community must thoroughly review," Strickland wrote in his weekly email to citizens.

Strickland listed 14 major storms that have resulted in widespread power outages here since 2003.

"These storms happen too frequently, and we need to explore options to reduce their impact,” the mayor wrote.

Young told City Council this week that burying all electric utilities would cost billions of dollars and would not eliminate electric outages.

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About Power Poll: Power Poll asks questions of the most powerful, influential people in U.S. cities. It is not a scientific survey. But because the people responding to the surveys comprise the leadership structure of their cities, the results afford a fascinating glimpse into the thoughts, opinions, and beliefs of those in a position to make change. Power Poll is distinctly nonpartisan.

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