Cook: A letter from the year 2025

Cook: A letter from the year 2025

December 1st, 2011 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

Dear Chattanooga in 2011:

You ought to see the year 2025. You'll love it. So much is different. Nearly one-quarter of all residents commute by bike. Police officers no longer have to pay to drive their squad cars home. Vanderbilt continues to beat UT in football.

(I guess not everything is different.)

But the aspect of daily life you'll love most? The energy revolution.

I remember -- back in days long ago -- when winter storms came, knocked down power lines and we had to wait, say, two or three days before our power came back on. We haven't had that happen in years. I can't remember the last time I saw an EPB biodiesel power truck.

I can't remember the last time we lost power for more than five minutes. (Storms are worse these days. A lot worse. Climate change has affected our weather and crops, producing hotter summers, colder winters and more extreme weather.)

It all began around 2012. People in Chattanooga started realizing we were in the midst of a huge transformation. And at the forefront of the transformation was the "smart grid."

Remember the Riverfront Renaissance from the 1990s? The transformation of our waterfront totally changed the identity, economy and spirit of our city.

The smart grid became equally as transforming.

It started when EPB laid down fiber-optic lines, giving Chattanooga a gigabit-per-second Internet speed. We were like the Usain Bolt of cities; no one was faster.

Then came the smart meters (on the side of homes and businesses), intelligent switches (tops of power poles) and the Smart Grid Data Management System (EPB headquarters). These three components could communicate with one another, which made the energy system of, say 2010, look like tin-can telephones.

"I liken it to the days when electric power was available for the first time to everybody," Danna Bailey, EPB communications director, told me back in the winter of 2011.

The Model T compared to a Passat. An oil lamp versus a CFL bulb. Barack Obama compared to the woman elected in 2020.

"What we're building today is the next generation of power systems," said Bailey. "And we are attracting attention from all around the world, not just in the U.S."

What an understatement. In 2013, inventors and investors flooded to Chattanooga, creating a melting pot of intellectual energy, helping to speed up the contagious process where one-thing-leads-to-another, and good ideas emerge like flowers in spring.

Today, the changes are so vast -- so unimaginable from 2011 -- you wouldn't believe me if I told you. Here are just the small things:

Remember those power outages? A tree falls on your neighbor's lines and the whole street is dark? Now, only your neighbor's house loses power, as those intelligent switches reroute power from other lines to your home.

Electric bills now have options like a menu. Back in 2011, we used to pay a flat rate for energy. If I ran my air conditioner at 3 p.m. in July, it cost the same as turning on my washing machine at midnight in February. This caused huge demand on energy producers and made energy costs fictionally cheap.

Now customers choose energy plans. My family pays cheaper rates for energy we use during off-peak times (early in the morning, late at night) compared to high-demand times.

The smart grid allowed us to program our big energy appliances -- hot water heater, dishwasher, washing machine -- to run when energy costs are low between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.

My neighbor is on a fixed energy plan. He gives EPB his choices: A home heated to 70 degrees in the winter, cooled to 68 in the summer, and hot water whenever he wants it. In exchange, he pays a fixed rate each month on his bill, and the smart grid controls when his HVAC unit kicks on and the time of day his hot water heater pulls energy.

All of this reduces demand during peak hours, which helped -- but did not solve -- the nation's energy crisis.

"You think about what happened since 1990 and the first time you got a PC on your desk. It came with a modem and a main frame. It was a big, dumb system," said Bailey. "Compare that to computers today.

"We can do a lot in 20 years."

Trust me, she's right.

David Cook can be reached at